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LOS ANGELES ART COMMUNITY: GROUP PORTRAIT
Interviewed by George M. Goodwin
Completed under the auspices
Oral History Program
University of California
Copyright @ 1977
The Regents of the University of California
This manuscript is hereby made available for research
purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript,
including the right to publication, are reserved to the
University Library of the University of California at
Los Angeles. No part of the manuscript may be quoted
for publication without the written permission of the
University Librarian of the University of California
at Los Angeles.
LOS ANGELES ART COMMUNITY: GROUP PORTRAIT
This interview is one of a series, entitled "Los Angeles
Art Community: Group Portrait," funded by the National
Endowment for the Humanities and conducted from July 1,
1975 to March 31, 1977 by the UCLA Oral History Program.
The project was directed jointly by Page Ackerman,
University Librarian, and Gerald Nordland, Director,
UCLA Art Galleries, and administered by Bernard Galm,
Director, Oral History Program, After selection of
interview candidates and interviewers, the Program
assumed responsibility for the conduct of all interviews
and their processing.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Interview History xvii
TAPE NUMBER: I, Side One (November 11, 1976) .... 1
Birth in Pomona, California — Upbringing by
grandparents--Family background--Art lessons
and schooling — Meeting Theodore Modra at the
Los Angeles County Fair — Meeting Clarence
Hinkle — High school art and other studies —
Church, Boy Scouts, and YMCA — Decision to
attend Chouinard Art Institute — Mrs. Nelbert
Chouinard — Chouinard: curriculum — Students —
Faculty--Los Angeles as an art center: museums
and galleries — Earl Stendahl .
TAPE NUMBER: I, Side Two (November 17, 1976) .... 27
Cowie Gallery — Initial contact with Dalzell
Hatf ield--First exhibition — Edgar B. Davis
Prize--Other prizes--Setting up a studio with
Phil Dike — Cutting classes to paint a Gypsy
encampment — Trip with Bill Veale to Central
and South America--Meeting with Cass Gilbert
in New York--Traveling in Europe with friend
from Chouinard — European museums — Acceptance
at Autumn Salon in Paris — Experiences in Paris
lithography workshop — Return: exhibition at
TAPE NUMBER: II, Side One (November 30, 1976) .... 54
Teaching: at the University of Hawaii, the
University of California — At Stickney Art
Institute, Pasadena--At Chouinard — Sources
of watercolor painting--Techniques of painting
a watercolor--Importance of drawing as a
discipline — Using models in teaching — Devising
new drawing assignments--Qualities of a painter
— Exposing students to a variety of materials.
TAPE NUMBER: II, Side Two (November 30, 1976) .... 83
Need of artists for exposure to media and
materials — Artists and the future — Articulating
a philosophy of art education — Chouinard in the
twenties and thirties — Mrs. Chouinard — Later
Disney support of the institute--Scripps College:
mural comniission--Acting prof essorship--Building
a house in Claremont — Hartley Alexander--Tuesday
nights at the Alexander home--Alexander ' s essay
on van Gogh — Humanities program at Scripps .
TAPE NUMBER: III, Side One (December 4, 1976) .... 110
Scripps: need for studio facilities — President
Ernst Jaqua proposes a Fine Arts Foundation —
Mrs. Florence Lang: visits and subsequent
gifts of buildings — Fine Arts Foundation —
National ceramics shows — Background of Mrs.
Lang--Art faculty at Scripps--The graduate
program--Summer sessions--Prominent graduates —
Jack Zajac — Tom Van Sant — Educating the artist.
TAPE NUMBER: III, Side Two (December 4, 1976) .... 137
Hiring professionals as f aculty--Faculty unity
— Contribution of Albert Stewart--Innovativeness
and individuality of style--Teaching the
fundamentals--Opposition to present art teaching
methodology--Teacher, administrator, artist —
Lecture tours for Association of American
Colleges--Visiting Grant Wood in Iowa--Lecturing
at black colleges--Martinez mural at Scripps —
Orozco mural at Pomona College.
TAPE NUMBER: IV, Side One (December 4, 1976) .... 162
Orozco mural at Pomona [cont 'd] --Lebrun mural
at Pomona — Siqueiros in Los Angeles--Foreign
influences — Building a home in Padua Hills.
[Second Part] (December 10, 1976) . . . 173
Commission to design an air school — Artistic
and structural details — Decision to build
other schools — Later FBI investigation of
contracting procedures--Experimentation with
rammed earth--Invitation from War Department
to become combat artist — Cancellation of war
TAPE NUMBER: IV, Side Two (December 10, 1976) .... 188
Hired by Life as war correspondent — To India
from Los Angeles by ship--Gunnery practice
and serving watches — Building furniture in
spare time--Sea stories — Painting a mural for
crew's gallery — More sea stories — Arrival in
Hobart, Tasmania, harbor — Encounter with
drunken captain — Arrival in Madras, India —
Running aground — First sight of India:
floating bodies in the river.
TAPE NUMBER: V, Side One (December 10, 1976) 213
Calcutta: overcrowding and famine — New Delhi:
meeting the viceroy of India — Friendship with
viceroy's aide — Lord and Lady Wavell —
Exhibition of war artists — Meeting Lord
Mountbatten — Taken to the Arakan front —
Chittagong — British fliers — Battle of Bamboo
Hill — Tony Beauchamp — Premature bombing attack
--Brushes with death — Lucien Labaudt embarks
(in Sheet's place) for China.
TAPE NUMBER: V, Side Two (December 10, 1976) 238
Labaudt killed en route — Tragedies of
correspondents--Accompanying longest flight
mission of war--Desire to contest demotion
of General Stilwell — Decision to return to
New York — Departure from New Delhi — The long
way home: tour of Middle East — Ups and downs
of return flights — Rendezvous with wife — New
York: meeting with Life staff — Return to
Southern California--Breaking Stilwell story
against White House orders — Resignation from
TAPE NUMBER: VI, Side One (December 13, 1976) .... 264
The Los Angeles County Fair: assisting
Theodore Modra--Invitation to direct the art
program — Purpose of the art show — Juries and
prizes — Postwar change of format — "One World
of Art" exhibition--Guided tour for Governor
Warren — Arthur Millier's assistance — "5,000
Years of Art in Clay" exhibition — "Western
Living" exhibition — Collaboration among
artists, architects, and decorators — The
finance of collecting--Calculating an
TAPE NUMBER: VI, Side Two (December 13, 1976) .... 289
Need for mass art education--Developing
interest through collecting — Art education
today — "Painting in the United States"
exhibition: showing abstract painters — The
County Museum and the county fair — Dr. William
R. Valentiner — Grace Nicholson and the Pasadena
museum--Gifts to museums — The Huntington Art
Gallery — Growing problems with the county fair
— Conflict over photography show — Subsequent
development of art at the fair — "California
Design" exhibitions at Pasadena museum--Sam
Maloof, furniture designer--Serving on national
exhibition juries — Incident at the Metropolitan,
Millard Sheets, one of America's most ambitious,
prolific, and successful artists, was born on January 24,
1907, in Pomona, California, the son of John and Milly
(Owen) Sheets. Though primarily a painter, he has pursued
careers as an educator, architectural designer, correspondent,
diplomat, and collector.
His mother died in childbirth, and he was reared by his
maternal grandparents and young aunts on a working ranch
east of Los Angeles. As a child. Sheets loved horses and
the out-of-doors, and from the age of three began to draw.
He was not only a good student but was deeply involved in
sports. Boy Scouts, and the YMCA.
Sheets 's childhood art abilities were nurtured by
several individuals and favorable situations. He took
drawing and painting lessons from a neighboring hobbyist,
had a perceptive teacher in junior high school, and was
granted time away from high school to paint. Even more
influential were monthly criticism sessions, offered on an
individual basis by two professional artists, Theodore B.
Modra in Claremont and Clarence Hinkle in Laguna Beach.
Though he planned to enroll as a freshman at Pomona
College, he was persuaded to study at an art school, where
professional-level courses would be available. Consequently,
he became a student at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los
Angeles, to which he conunuted daily on the Red Car. He
took the required courses in drawing, painting, and design,
but quickly developed an interest in watercolor painting.
So enthralled with this portable and flexible medium, he
occasionally skipped class to paint in picturesque locations.
He also received basic instruction in mural painting as well
as an exposure to the history of art from F. Tolles Chamberlain.
At the end of his second year. Sheets was advanced to
instructor. He specialized in watercolor painting, but he
also taught delineation to architects. In 1928, Sheets was
approached by Dalzell Hatfield for representation by his
gallery, a progressive one, located near the Chouinard
campus. A one-man exhibition, which was a huge success,
followed in 1929. Amazingly, Sheets has maintained his
relationship with the Hatfield Gallery throughout his
career, selling, he estimates, over 3,000 paintings.
Also in 1929, Sheets won the $1,750 Davis Prize from
the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas. This enormous sum
permitted him to take a cruise to Central and South America,
which was followed by a six-month journey throughout Europe.
In addition to visiting the major museiams and monuments
of France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, he drew and
painted continually. In Paris he was admitted to the
Autumn Salon and was introduced to lithography by working in
a studio. Sheets ended his trip prematurely, however, to
return to Los Angeles to marry Mary Baskerville, an art
student at UCLA.
Though he continued a variety of part-time teaching
assignments at Stickney Art Institute in Pasadena, the
universities of California (Berkeley) and Hawaii, and
Chouinard until 1935, Sheets became affiliated with Scripps
College in 1931. Originally invited to paint a mural, he
later received a one-year teaching appointment. This led
to a twenty-three-year tenure as chairman of the art
department, through which he established a dynamic program
for professional artists and humanities students.
Sheets was deeply influenced by his relationship with
Professor Hartley Alexander, a senior philosopher who was
concerned about educating artists in a liberal tradition.
He attended weekly discussions in Alexander's home for more
than five years and implemented many of his concepts.
Perhaps the most tangible sign of Sheets 's impact on the
Scripps campus was the development of the Lang Art Center.
Because there were inadequate studio facilities, he endeavored
to build new quarters. Ultimately his wildest dreams were
fulfilled by three large gifts from Mrs. Florence Lang as
well as the establishment of a Fine Arts Foundation.
Sheets introduced the MFA degree to train professional
artists, and increased the faculty and student body
several times over. In addition to offering courses in
drawing, painting, design, and sculpture, he emphasized
architecture and ceramics and introduced a popular siimmer
session. The college produced dozens of prominent graduates,
including Jack Zajac, a winner of the Prix de Rome, though
Sheets claims that there was not a pervasive Scripps style.
Versatility, he hopes, is their trademark.
In 1954, while recovering from a serious horseback-
riding injury. Sheets was consulted on the continuing
development of Los Angeles County's art school, Otis Art
Institute. He argued that a dramatic overhaul was needed
to produce a professionally sound program. He originally
agreed to serve as acting director but later left Scripps
to become the full-time director of Otis in 1955.
As director. Sheets vastly expanded the physical plant,
hired a new faculty, required advanced standing by entering
students, and emphasized the MFA degree as well as liberal
arts courses. A gallery program, featuring historical and
contemporary exhibitions, was also introduced. Although
Sheets was pleased with the growth of the school, he was
frustrated by the board of governors and county government,
and distracted by his numerous other commitments. Though
he resigned as director in 1962, he was awarded an honorary
MFA degree and remained a trustee. He has also served as
a trustee of Scripps, California Institute of the Arts,
and Art Center School.
Although he had painted murals early in his career,
including a fresco for South Pasadena Junior High School and
an entire cycle for the Golden Gate Exposition in San
Francisco, Sheets 's work in this field did not accelerate
until the mid~1950s. At this time he became involved, in
a highly idiosyncratic manner, with Howard Ahmanson in the
design of offices for Home Savings. The success of Sheets ' s
designs, which included architecture as well as landscaping
and decoration, was immediate. To Ahmanson, the offices
were not only refreshing but became highly profitable
investments. Consequently, Sheets has designed over forty
offices for Home Savings throughout California. In
completing these and other commissions in Arizona and
Texas, he has established an artistic workshop comparable to
a Renaissance studio, employing mosaic makers, stained-
glass makers, mural painters, and architects. Though he
remains director of design for Home Savings, he is planning
to devote less time to this endeavor, concentrating instead
on his own painting.
In addition to Home Savings offices, Millard Sheets
has executed major architectural and design commissions
throughout the United States. In 1962, he won a competition,
through funds provided by the National Academy of Design,
to design a mosaic mural for the Detroit Public Library.
His subject, portrayed in heroic figures, illustrates
the great periods of learning exemplified by a library.
In 1965, he designed a mosaic mural for a dome in the
National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Other commissions
include a pair of tile murals representing the civili-
zations of man and the history of California, for the
annex to the Los Angeles City Hall. These latter projects
were executed while he was director of design for the
Interpace company, through which he directed the develop-
ment of new techniques for producing glazes.
Millard Sheets ' s most monumental commission is, no
doubt, the mural he designed for the library facade of the
University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Measuring approximately
9,000 square feet, this mural was made out of granite in
order to withstand extreme weather conditions. As such, an
entire technology had to be invented in order to design
the individual granite pieces, then cut, transport, and
install them. Following three years of careful supervision,
the immense mural, portraying Christ and great scholars of
the world, was unveiled in South Bend in 1963. Sheets was
awarded an honorary LLD degree and has subsequently
developed additional uses for granite in his murals.
Two other major commissions he has produced are designs
for the Scottish Rite Masonic Temples in Los Angeles and
San Francisco. The Los Angeles commission represented an
entire architectural statement, but both demanded extensive
interior and exterior decoration. Customarily, these
included sculptures as well as painted and mosaic murals.
Millard Sheets 's work as an architectural designer
actually began on the eve of World War II, when he designed
seventeen flight schools for the air force. These were
not only functional but contained numerous artistic details
and were built in record time. Sheets ' s other wartime
activity, however, consisted of service as a correspondent-
illustrator for Life magazine. He was assigned to the
India-China-Burma theater, where, through personal initiative,
he was sent into the heart of combat.
He was involved with international affairs on three
more occasions following World War II. In 1958, he served
as a combat artist for the air force in covering hostilities
between Nationalist and Communist China. In 1960 and 1961,
he was sent to Turkey and the Soviet Union by the State
Department. Accompanied by his wife, he traveled throughout
these countries, visiting artists, lecturing, and giving
demonstrations. Though fond of the Russian people, he is
deeply opposed to their form of government, particularly
censorship and propaganda. Sheets was also critical of
the State Department for perpetuating fears and ignorance.
In addition to his regular duties of teaching, painting,
and designing. Sheets was director of the art program at the
Los Angeles County Fair from 1931 to 1958. Originally a
teenage assistant to its director, he later developed his
own programs, which included increased prizes, more
professional juries, and enlarged exhibition spaces. Sheets
eventually replaced the annual exhibitions for local
artists with a series of major exhibitions, for which
objects were borrowed nationally and internationally. Such
exhibitions as "One World of Art," "6000 Years of Clay,"
and "Painting in the United States" were comparable to
the best exhibitions available in Southern California
museums. "Western Living," presented in collaboration with
House Beautiful magazine, was particularly intended to
upgrade the tastes of casual fair visitors.
Millard Sheets also presented numerous exhibitions while
at Scripps College, including a ceramics annual which
continues to this day. He has also served as a purchaser for
Bullock's department stores when an attempt was made to
establish a comprehensive art program. Most recently,
however. Sheets has been involved with collecting as a
trustee of the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation in Pasadena.
A long-time friend of Mrs. Scott, who established a gallery
in her home, he is presently changing the nature of the
collection, with the intention of building a distinguished
collection of American painting. His goal is about 100
works as well as the construction of new quarters.
Himself an art collector with broad and exotic tastes.
Sheets is primarily devoted to pre-Columbian sculpture
and ceramics, he has also collected Chinese sculpture,
Japanese screens, sea shells, and butterflies.
His extensive collection is displayed in a large
gallery on his estate. Barking Rocks, in Mendocino County,
California. Purchased in 1958, the seaside retreat also
contains a main house, guest house, studio, and aviary, and
is frequently visited by his four children and fifteen
grandchildren. Although there are several family pets,
his racing and show horses, which have been a constant
family interest, are stabled elsewhere.
An overview of Millard Sheets 's painting can be obtained
from approximately sixty works in the Steele Foundation
collection. These include oils and watercolors of the
1930s and acrylics and a tapestry of the 1960s. Sheets is
primarily a representational artist and remains attached to
nature: landscape, animals, and people. Having traveled
throughout the world, however, he has painted foreign as
well as familiar subjects. Originally fascinated by the
interplay of light and dark and the importance of structure,
he has been more recently intrigued by color. He currently
works in a fanciful and romantic manner.
George M. Goodwin
Los Angeles, California
INTERVIEWER: George M. Goodwin, Interviewer-Editor,
UCLA Oral History Program (for "L.A. Art Community:
Group Portrait"). BA, Art History, Lake Forest
College; MA, Art History, Columbia University;
PhD, Art Education, Stanford University. Acting
Curator of Education, Los Angeles County Museum
of Art, 1975-76.
TIME AND SETTING OF INTERVIEW:
Place; Apartment of Millard Sheets, 333 West
California Boulevard, Pasadena. The video session
was conducted at Barking Rocks, Mr. Sheets 's home
in Gualala, California, and at the Virginia Steele
Scott Foundation in Pasadena.
Dates: November 17, 30, December 4, 10, 13, 1976;
January 1, 6, 13, 16, February 5, 6, 9 [video
sessions] , 1977 .
Time of day, length of sessions, and total number
of recording hours: Interviews took place generally
in the late afternoon; sessions averaged two hours
in length. Approximately sixteen hours were
Persons present during the interview: Sheets and
Goodwin. Nancy Olexo was present at the video
sessions to operate equipment.
CONDUCT OF THE INTERVIEW:
The interviewer pursued a full biographical study,
with broad coverage of the interviewee's multifaceted
career. Each session was devoted to a particular
topic, though an outline was not used. The inter-
viewee spoke in great detail about a wide range of
topics. His work as a painter, however, was not
Editing was done by the interviewer. The verbatim
transcript of the interview was checked against the
original tape recordings and edited for punctuation,
paragraphing, correct spelling, and verification of
proper and place names. This final manuscript
remains in the same order as the original taped
material. Words and phrases added by the editor
appear in brackets.
Mr. Sheets reviewed and approved the edited
transcript. He made a number of corrections and
additions, and he supplied spellings of some names
not previously verified.
The interviewer wrote the introduction. The index
was prepared by Lawrence Weschler, Assistant Editor,
Oral History Program. Other front matter was
prepared by the Program staff.
The original tape recordings, video tape, and
edited transcript are in the University Archives
and are available under the regulations governing
the use of permanent noncurrent records of the
Records relating to the interview are located in
the office of the Oral History Program.
TAPE NUMBER: I, SIDE ONE
NOVEMBER 11, 1976
GOODWIN: Mr. Sheets, I'd like you to tell us first
about your family background.
SHEETS: Well, George, I had an unusual experience. I
was born in Pomona (which is not so unusual) , but my
mother [Milly Owen Sheets] died when I was born, and I
grew up with my grandfather [Louis Owen] and grandmother
[Emma Owen] , both of whom — fortunately for me, I think —
were very young. I think my grandfather was thirty-eight
and my grandmother thirty-seven when I was born. My
mother was their oldest child, and they had four daughters,
So when I came along and came to live with them, they
spoiled the hell out of me because I was the first son
in the family. My grandfather grew up in the days where
every man thought he should have a son. So from the time
I was a very small child, probably three, we rode horse-
back together, and every year I got a bigger horse, a
better horse. He raised racehorses, and all the things
that I've loved all my life I grew up with. I knew all
about the breeding and the whole business of raising
horses from the time I was four or five years old. It
was a very fortunate relationship for me because my
grandmother and grandfather were extremely interested
in anything I wanted to do.
I had two aunts that were still at home, unmarried,
when I was born. One of them became, I guess, a built-in
baby-sitter, Aunt Frances [later Frances Johnson], who
probably was twelve or thirteen when I was born. In
order to, I suppose, keep me out of her hair, she would
sit down and do a little doodling when I was about three,
and I would doodle all day without bothering anyone. I
think just because of that peculiar incident, by the time
I arrived in kindergarten, I seemed to have a little more
of what they called talent. Of course it wasn't; it was
just experience. From the time I went into kindergarten
straight through grade school, that continued to follow
me, as something that each teacher expected me to do more
and more. I remember in first grade illustrating prac-
tically everything we did in history on the big chalk
boards, and it was just a natural thing that I grew into
because, I think, of my very early start." Then when she
married, she and her husband [Ebert Johnson] were just
marvelous to me. They were almost like a second father
and mother in a way. I spent a great deal of time with
them. They were both interested in the fact that I
started to paint when I was nine. I guess it just never
occurred to me to do anything else. It just grew like
GOODWIN: Let's back up a little bit. Where did your
ancestors come from?
SHEETS: My father's family was a mixture of German and
English. The German side, starting in Heidelberg eight
or ten generations before, had settled in Pennsylvania
and then came to Illinois. My father [John G. Sheets]
met my mother in South Dakota, where she was born. On
the other side, my grandfather's name was Owen. He was
Welsh and Scotch. My grandmother was English and Irish.
They went out there when, I believe, he was seventeen and
she was sixteen, pregnant with my mother, which of course
is the reason that they were so young when I was born.
Although my mother, I think, was twenty-two when I was
born, they had her at a very early age.
Needless to say, they had very difficult times in
those early days. The first year they had a blizzard
that was so bad that nearly all the people that went out
there practically starved to death. But my granddad was
the kind that was never daunted by anything. He read a
placard in the railroad station that said anyone that
could stay with an Indian in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for three
hours in a free-for-all fight would get $300. So without
telling my grandmother, he rode the rods in the middle of
winter to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and challenged this man, and
they had a terrible fight. They almost killed each other.
They both ended up in the hospital, but he stayed with
him, and that $300 put that whole group in that one little
settlement through the winter, which was the kind of a
granddad I had. [laughter] I've always been very proud
of the fact that he was never bothered by anything — he
just did it. But they were real natural American pioneers
that had come, of course, from Europe — originally, their
fainilies--but many, many generations before.
GOODWIN: When did your grandparents come to Southern
SHEETS: Well, it was interesting. My grandfather, before
he came here to settle, he used to bring race horses out
from Illinois and race against Lucky Baldwin in the old
Santa Anita track, about 1895. He fell in love with
California, but he had extensive ranches by that time — or
farms, I guess they call them--in South Dakota. And it
wasn't until about 1902 that they came to California to
settle in Pomona. It's so typical of him. He brought
all of his stock with him — cattle, bulls, horses, and
several carloads of other stock, prize stock he was
raising at the time. He brought them to California —
having sold all of his farms in South Dakota. Upon
arrival here, he bought extensive orange groves near
Pomona. He spent one year here and hated Southern
California, living here. So he sold everything out in
Southern California and went back to South Dakota and
bought farms again. Needless to say, he wasn't very
smart in some of the purchases and sales because he lost
a great deal of money in the process. He spent a year
and a half in South Dakota and then came back to California
to stay. I think the last time was in 1902, or possibly
'03, when he came here finally. And I was born in 1907.
GOODWIN: Do you know why he picked Pomona?
SHEETS: Oranges. It was so famous in those days nationally
for being the center of the orange groves in Southern
California, which it was in those days. I guess the name
or something appealed to them, and they just came directly
to Pomona and then looked around and settled. It was just
a natural decision, I guess. There were no people involved
that he knew. He just came here and liked it and came back
GOODWIN: Did you have brothers and sisters?
SHEETS: No, my father didn't remarry for five or six
years, and he and my stepmother never had any children.
They were very wonderful to me always when I went to
visit, but I've always felt that it was a very fortunate
thing for me in a way that I grew up with my grandfather
and grandmother because they were just more interested in
having me do what I wanted to do. My father really was
terribly disappointed because I didn't become a baseball
player, which I used to do in high school. I played on
a team that won the state championship. My dad, I think,
always felt that it was a disappointment, because he
loved baseball. He really thought that the idea of an
art career wasn't too smart, but my grandfather and
grandmother just never wavered in support of what I
wanted to do. So though I was extremely close and had
a wonderful dad who was a fine man with a good set of
values and all that, it was a very fortunate thing for
me, with my mother being gone (who I think was so much
like my grandfather and grandmother) . I think it was
much better that it worked out this way.
GOODWIN: What kind of work did your father do?
SHEETS: My father was a hay broker. He worked for a
very large corporation that raised hay and very important
vegetable crops in the Imperial Valley, and he was the
man who really had charge of the marketing in the Los
Angeles area. He did that right up until he died.
I did have a cousin, however, who was born nine days
after I was born. My mother's next sister [Hallie Owen
Perrin] produced this cousin of mine nine days after I
was born, and she literally nursed both of us, so we
grew up like twins. We were practically inseparable
through high school. We used to go out into my grand-
father's hillsides, which were located where Kellogg
Hill is now. If you drive down the [San Bernardino]
freeway, that was all land that my grandfather owned
and leased. I'd spend the summer there, all summer
herding cattle, and come home Saturday night for a
bath. And I painted. I worked the fences and the
water in the morning and the horseback, and then every
afternoon I painted, camped out there, and it was a great
thing. This cousin and I were inseparable. We really
grew up as brothers, very much closer than most brothers
in that way.
GOODWIN: What was his name?
SHEETS: Clarence Perrin. His family was also very
tolerant of the idea of my becoming an artist. When my
dad didn't help me when I was ready to go to art school,
my uncle helped me. It was really interesting. My dad
learned to be happy a long time before he died about the
fact that I was involved in art the way I was, but it was
just curious how your whole life is changed by a sad thing
like your mother's death.
GOODWIN: You attended the local schools in Pomona?
SHEETS: Yes, I went through grade schools, kindergarten,
grade schools, and junior high school. I think it was in
junior high school that I first had a great teacher.
Everybody's lucky if they have one or two of those in
their lifetime, and I had , I think, maybe more than
average. I had the most marvelous young woman who taught
art in the junior high school [Helen Daggs] . She had just
graduated from college, was fairly skillful herself, but
mainly she knew really what the real art world was about.
It was such a thrill. I thought she not only was the
most beautiful gal I'd ever met, but she had such a
spiritl For three or four of us in that class she just
opened up a whole world of feeling that was remarkable
for high school age. It was not merely doing busy things
and making nice children's art, as they are apt to do
today. She took us out, we wandered through the woods
and the hills, and we made drawings, and she gave us the
real art spirit, which is remarkable for that period — at
least in Pomona, because there were no museums, nothing
here when I grew up.
GOODWIN: Where had she studied?
SHEETS: She had studied at Pomona College, and I don't
know how she got what she did out of Pomona College,
because she was above anything that I think was going on
at Pomona College at the time. [laughter] But I've
always just treasured the memory of that woman and her
depth of feeling that was so much beyond just teaching
busy work or exercises in art. We were on our toes 100
A very funny thing happened about this time or a
little before that, maybe two years before that. I had
been dabbling around in paint, and I had been copying
pictures, which was about all that you knew how to do —
no one had really suggested anything else. [There was]
a charming little woman [Mrs. Seward] that lived down the
street, and I used to stand when I was quite young, maybe
five or six, and watch her painting through the window.
I was so moved, without knowing why, at the idea of her
painting. Of course, what she was doing was copying
everything from calendars to old reproductions, and she
saw me peeking through the window quite a bit, and she
finally invited me in and asked me if I'd like to paint.
So I remember very distinctly, for twenty-five cents on
Saturday morning, I went down and she gave me all morning,
teaching me how to mix color and what values meant. It
was obviously just mechanical. So at least by the time
I got to junior high school, I was fairly professional
in the handling of brushes. I didn't know anything basic
about form, but I did have a hell of a desire and a mar-
velous feeling that this was my life.
The L.A. County Fair was started by my uncle, as a
matter of fact, when I was about thirteen. I heard that
they had an opening in the fair — it was held in a tent
the first year — for painters who did original paintings
and for painters who made copies. So I rushed out with
one of my little copies, and I submitted it. [tape
recorder turned off] I read in the paper a few days
later when the fair had opened that I had won the first
prize in copying. I was about twelve, and I went out
with all of the eagerness in the world to see my painting.
I was standing in front of it, needless to say, and
admiring it with this big blue ribbon hanging on it, and
a very amazing man walked out who was in charge of the
exhibition. He had flowing white hair, with a bow tie.
He was actually from Europe. He had had a marvelous back-
ground in Europe as an artist in New York, studied with
Robert Henri, and he walked up to me and he said, in the
most gruff way, "Did you paint that picture?" I said,
"Yes, I did." He said, "Come with me." And he didn't
grab me by the ear, but he grabbed me by the collar and
dragged me into his office. I never had such a verbal
licking in my life. He said, "Don't you ever -copy another
painting as long as you live. You go out and learn how to
do things from nature." He just read the riot act to me.
He scared the hell out of me. After giving me the devil
for about thirty minutes, he said, "All right, now the
first Saturday of every month, you come to my studio, and
you bring some things that you've done outdoors, and we're
going to get acquainted. I'll give you a criticism."
Well, it was the most marvelous thing that could have
happened to anyone. He was perhaps not a great painter,
but he had a marvelous background. He had come to
California and bought an orange grove and only been there
a year, and when they started the fair, somehow or other
my uncle had heard of him and asked him to head this show.
That man gave me a Saturday once a month for about three
or four years. It was so marvelous in opening up, again,
the whole world of art. He knew all the top American
painters. That's where I first heard of George Bellows,
and that was a great experience for me because he showed
me reproductions of George Bellows, told me many of the
stories of when they were at school together with Robert
Henri and George Lukes and the whole group that became
just idols to me in a matter of two or three years. So
these are the kinds of things you can't make happen, but
they did happen just through good fortune of the right
people, in a sense, being there at the right time in my
GOODWIN: Do you remember the teacher's name?
SHEETS: It was Theodore B. Modra , and he was a painter
in his own right. He didn't really teach--he just did
this because he wanted to stir me up and get me started
right instead of doing what I was doing.
GOODWIN: Did he have some other students?
SHEETS: No, I'm the only one that he did this for. We
did paint together later. We used to take trips with his
wife. We'd go on a painting trip for maybe a week in the
mountains or sometimes down in Laguna Beach and [we'd]
camp. We could camp in the sand on Laguna Beach and
wouldn't see a soul for a week in those days. It was
just like a deserted island.
Then I had another experience a little bit along that
line before I went to art school. I submitted a painting
to a professional show. By now, by this time, I was, I
think, seventeen, and I had been accepted in several shows,
but I submitted a painting to the old Laguna Beach Art
Association, which was so different than we think of it
today. It was a group of very, very good, solid painters —
maybe not great, but remarkable men--and they had a little
art gallery down there that was run as a very professional
place to show. Each year they had an annual show, where
they allowed outside people to submit. So I sent my first
painting to a professional show there — I think I was six-
teen or seventeen — and it was accepted. And again, I was
standing in front of my painting when the show was opened.
A gentleman walked up to me, and he looked at me, and he
said, "Are you Millard Sheets? Did you paint that picture?"
I said, "Yes, I did." "Well," he said, "I'm Clarence
Hinkle." He said, "I like that painting. I wish you could
come and see me." It's extraordinary: he said almost word
for word what Mr. Modra had said. "Would you come down to
Laguna once a month and let me look at your work?" For
about three years, I went down at least once a month and
showed him my paintings. He was a very professional
person — a fine, fine painter in his own right — and he
opened up totally new worlds of feeling in painting. He
was objective, but he had a great deal more sense of the
importance of the underlying abstract form that must occur
in all paintings no matter whether they're representational
or not. The design elements certainly were very important.
He was marvelous with me on color. But as I look back,
it's the reason, I think, that all my life I have spent
so much time with young people who occasionally come to
me for advice (or who I see need advice) : because I can
never repay what those things meant to me and at the right
time in my life. It was a period that was all exciting.
There was nothing about it that in any way formed any
question in my mind about what I wanted to do. These
experiences, one on top of another, opened the door for
the inevitable thing. So, naturally, when I graduated
from high school ....
GOODWIN: Just a moment. Did you have art instruction
in high school?
SHEETS: Yes, I had art instruction, and the woman in
charge of the art department [Ida Webster] unfortunately
had been a Latin teacher. When Latin was dropped in the
curriculum, she was made head of the art department. She
was a very loving person. She did not pretend to know all
about art, but she did have a real sense of responsibility,
and she was very much interested in what I was doing, the
fact that I was seeing people like Hinkle and Modra earlier,
and by this time others. She worked it out because I did
have, fortunately, fairly good grades in high school, and
I was given my afternoons free my senior year to go out
painting. She was the one that fought for that, which
I've always thought was another great step in my life.
GOODWIN: Did anybody else have that privilege?
SHEETS: No. I had enough credits because I started
school in mid semester . In those days in California, you
started in the middle of the year because of your birth-
day. No, I skipped a half a grade — that's right — way
back in the third grade or something like that, and it
put me on an odd semester. So by the time I got to my
senior year, I didn't need all my credits. As a rule
they made you stay in the study hall, but she and the
principal, who was another great friend of mine, decided
that I could do more good for myself if I went painting,
which I did every afternoon.
GOODWIN: Did you enjoy regular academic subjects?
SHEETS: Some of them very much. I enjoyed math, and I
enjoyed English. I enjoyed certain sciences very much.
I had a terrible time with languages and particularly
Latin. In fact, my Latin teacher told me in the year I
repeated my second year of Latin, she said, "If you will
promise that you will never say that you studied with me,
I'll pass you." Normally I had very good grades, but I
was never much in Latin. But I loved the others. I
loved chemistry, and I loved all the other courses very
GOODWIN: So you graduated from Pomona High School in . . .
SHEETS: ... in 1925. I loved working in the shops. I
did always work with metal and wood and that kind of thing,
from the time I was small. I think just part of being an
artist, you have to work with your hands and every material
I was very lucky, again, having shop teachers that were
superior people, who made a great game out of really
learning and learning well. I used to work on a steel
lathe a tremendous amount, because I was fascinated with
the things you could do, as well as in wood. I had a
very good, I think, general background--not in the cultural
sense, but in the discipline sense. In those days they
taught you some disciplines and they made you learn, but
they made it enjoyable to learn. Of course, the schools
were so much less stirred up than they are today, and
there weren't too many things that confused us. I think
it's so different. I think so often of the students today,
with the problems they face, relative to the ones that we
faced, because the town was small, and everyone knew every-
one, and we had so much to do with sports and Boy Scouts.
GOODWIN: Was yours a religious family?
SHEETS: I would not say they were really religious. They
certainly were not irreligious. They were not in any sense
irreligious. I went to the Christian church because it was
the nearest church to where we lived. That's where I joined
the Boy Scout troop. I loved that church and all the
experiences, the evening young people's meetings, because
we were such a completely coagulated group, and it was
very different than today. Boy Scouts meant a lot to me,
and I did get a tremendous amount out of the YMCA when
they built it. Within about three years, I taught swimming
to the little ones joining, the ten-year-olds. I think
I used to teach about 300 kids a summer to swim. I played
in all the tennis tournaments and then the squash tourna-
ments in Southern California. In fact, I won several of
them, which was a great balance for some of the other
things I was doing. So I never felt any difference between
being a painter or being a baseball player, really. It's
a very natural sort of a way to grow up.
GOODWIN: You had a very wholesome upbringing.
SHEETS: Pretty lucky, really, in every sense: the mar-
velous relationship with my whole family, my aunts, and
their children; the great friends that we all had. It
was a very natural thing and not at all strange to them
that I wanted to be a painter, and yet it wasn't because
I was creeping off into a hole somewhere. We participated
in everything. It was a great experience.
GOODWIN: So before your graduation from high school, you
had to decide where you were going to go to art school?
SHEETS: Well, it was worse than that. I really had never
thought about going anywhere except to Pomona College. I
had been going to the football games and the baseball games
at Pomona College, which was only four miles from Pomona,
since I was a little boy. I had such a feeling of wanting
to go to Pomona College that it never occurred to me to go
anywhere else. I actually was accepted at Pomona College
to go in as a freshman in the fall of 1925. During that
summer, people like Hinkle and Modra and others, who were
quite interested in me as a possible artist, finally per-
suaded me and my grandfather and grandmother that I
shouldn't go to Pomona College. They felt that the college
would be a great experience, but there wasn't really even
the beginning of a professional art department there.
They encouraged me to go directly to art school, though
they did not discount for one moment the importance of a
general education. If Pomona College had been in those
days like most colleges are today, where they have at
least a reasonably professional art school, I'm sure I
would have gone. It was really in the last week before
school opened that I finally decided to go to an art
GOODWIN: What were your choices at that time? What
SHEETS: Well, it was very interesting. 'There were three
schools. There was the Los Angeles Art Academy, on
Alvarado Street, which several people recommended highly.
The Otis Art Institute was where it is now located, but
it was quite a different school in those days. Then
there was a brand-new school called Chouinard that Mrs.
[Nelbert] Chouinard, who had taught at Otis, and Mr.
[F. Tolles] Chamberlain, who had taught at Otis, had
decided to open because they felt that more should be
done in basic training than any school was doing. I
went in to see the three schools with a friend of mine.
We rode the Red Car in from Pomona to Los Angeles. We
walked from one school to another — they weren't that far
apart. When we walked into Chouinard, even though we
were impressed to a degree by both of the other schools,
there was no question in either of our minds. We met
another wonderful person, a Miss [Patty] Patterson, who
took us around the school. She taught design, but she
had an immediate impact upon both of us. She was so
completely knowledgeable and made us just feel at home.
As a matter of fact, I think we were there on Thursday,
and we started at school on Monday — which was a lucky
choice in every way, because through Chouinard I met
teachers that were just tops at that time, just tops.
GOODWIN: Can you give me a little more background about
SHEETS: Well, Mrs. Chouinard was a magnificent character.
She was very Irish. Her name was Murphy before she married
a Frenchman whose name was Chouinard. Unfortunately, quite
tragically, he died not too long after they were married.
So she had gone on her own way. She had taught design,
and she had been a painter. She was a very remarkable
woman. She had great enthusiasm, but she had the fire,
the guts, to carry out her enthusiasm. She really did
stick her neck out a mile and a half when she opened the
Chouinard school in an old, old building down on Eighth
street, a wooden building, an old house, with a ramshackle
old barn at the back and a fig tree in the middle of the
backyard. I am fairly sure that I went there at the
beginning of the third year. I think Chouinard had been
opened for just two years, perhaps a year, but I think
this was the beginning of the third year. We were so
lucky. We had F. Tolles Chamberlain, who taught drawing,
and Francis Murphy, and a group of teachers that were
very well educated. I think here, again, you meet the
right person at the right moment. We met Tolles
Chamberlain, who had been a Prix de Rome scholar — I
don't know how long before this, probably fifteen or
eighteen years before he became my teacher. He used to
talk about the great murals of Europe and Egypt and Greece.
Having been raised in Pomona, I didn't know there was any-
thing east or west of Los Angeles County. It was such a
fantastic introduction to meet a man who was just lost in
reverie in his excitement about these things; and he was
living it as clearly in those days, fifteen or twenty
years later, as he must have when he was in Egypt and
Rome and all over Europe. Of course, names like
Michelangelo and Botticelli — these were absolutely new.
There weren't books in those days. Oh, you had Gardner's
[Art through the Ages, by Helen Gardner] , I guess, and a
few other little books on history of art, but it was a
completely new introduction to the world of art. They
made everything so exciting, we didn't know what time
In fact, the first two years that I went to Chouinard,
I rode the Red Car from Pomona. I caught the six o'clock
Red Car in the morning, after having fed about 250 rabbits
that my cousin and I raised. We put ourselves through
school by raising rabbits, which we dressed every Saturday.
I would get into Los Angeles about a quarter to eight, take
an S car clear out to Westlake Park— in those days, now
MacArthur Park—and then we'd walk a few blocks down to
the school. Then I'd catch the 4:45 home, and get home
about six-fifteen, and feed the rabbits, and go to bed.
That went on for about two years. Then, of course, I
moved into Los Angeles. In fact, I started teaching my
third year at Chouinard. I started teaching a watercolor
class at Chouinard to most of the students I'd gone to
GOODWIN: For pay?
SHEETS: Yes, for pay. I was able to live in Los Angeles
in a very mediocre apartment, but it was a great change
from going back and forth.
GOODWIN: What was the curriculum while you were a
SHEETS: They required five days a week drawing from the
figure every morning, all morning. I had painting every
afternoon and a design class on Saturday morning. Mr.
Chamberlain, because they felt they couldn't make it a
class, let those of us who were interested — and it turned
out to be about eight (Phil Dike, Don Graham, Phil Paradise
and the whole group) ~we stayed after school one night a
week for a mural painting class where he showed us the
most incredible reproductions of some of the great things
of Europe and the world. He then gave us problems, which
we worked on outside of school. That was my first intro-
duction both to architecture and to mural painting. I've
always been so grateful for the spirit, again, in which he
did it. It was not just a pedantic course. He gave his
time quite apart from school. I'm sure he wasn't paid for
it, and we were so happy to spend our time. The only thing
we ran out of was time. We were always so very, very
busy. We kept paintings going in the back barn and out
in the back court. In addition to these things, we were
painting the figure and everything on the inside. It was
a marvelous bunch of years, where so many of the people
who have gone all over the world today came from in that
very short period of about four or five years.
GOODWIN: How many students were there?
SHEETS: There were some other classes. They had the
beginning of some great classes in costume design and
fashion design and fabrics. They had a very strong
emphasis on design. I think there was one class in the
early days — I guess it was called Commercial Art. But
I think there were around ninety students, if I remember.
GOODWIN: There were women, also?
SHEETS: Oh, yes. I think there were more boys than girls,
but it was fairly balanced. No one in the school was
allowed to go to school unless they had a certain amount
of proven ability. Not necessarily what you and I might
call talent, because no one knew enough about who they
were yet, but they had to have a reasonable amount of
skill to get in. Again, it was a great thing. I don't
think we felt competitive in those days. I think our
teachers had a lot to do with the fact that we were so
thrilled when someone did something exciting. We'd wish
we could say that we'd done it, you know. I think it was
just sort of built-in in those days. I think maybe there
hasn't been quite that spirit since.
GOODWIN: What led the teachers at a school like Chouinard
to Los Angeles?
SHEETS: Well, Los Angeles had a lot of advantages. A
man like Clarence Hinkle always had an income, and he
lived in Laguna. He loved the sea, and he painted it.
It was as natural for him to be there as anywhere else;
and I think at his age— because he was probably in his
late fifties when he came here~I think he loved the ease
of the climate, relatively speaking. Of course, Laguna
was a wild place then. It wasn't all covered up with
houses. It had beautiful hills, marvelous canyons, wonder-
ful surf, great rocks, everything. People like Tolles
Chamberlain came here, I think, for his wife's health. In
fact, I'm sure. They lived in New England, and I believe
she developed TB. They lived sort of toward Azusa for a
while, which was real desert in those days. You might as
well have been in Palm Springs. It was dry and very, very
good for that sort of thing. Then later, of course, they
moved in to Pasadena. But I think every one of the teachers
had a good reason to be here, and it was beginning to grow.
There was a lot being developed in the way of real new
interest in art among many collectors in Los Angeles,
GOODWIN: Do you think in retrospect it was a provincial
SHEETS: Relatively speaking, very provincial, yes. The
[Los Angeles County] Museum had a few good pieces in it.
I don't know how many people know what a fine collection
Preston Harrison had brought together of contemporary
American painting. That was a big excitement to all of
us. We used to go down to the museum at least once a
week and look at these paintings. They were the only
paintings we'd ever seen. It was a very exciting thing.
But relatively speaking, it was quite provincial. There
were no great big collections, except maybe the Preston
Harrison collection. Very few old masters. They started
watercolor shows about that time, for the first time, at
the L.A. museum. Very few people were painting water-
colors. There weren't over a dozen in the whole water-
color society. I got in the first time I exhibited
because they needed members, I guess.
GOODWIN: When was the first time you exhibited?
SHEETS: I think it must have been about 1926. I'd been
painting in oil so long, and when Mr. Chamberlain encouraged
me to paint in watercolor, it didn't take too long to make
the change from one medium to another. But it was a very
marvelous period for people working together.
Then they started to bring good exhibits. The Dalzell
Hatfield Gallery opened up on Seventh Street only a block
away, at that time, from the school on Eighth Street. Every
noon we used to go up to the gallery and see what they had,
and I saw my first van Gogh, my first Matisse, my first
introduction to the postimpressionists came from the
Hatfield Gallery. I never had seen — hadn't even read
about or heard about — these people, and it was pretty
shocking to us in those days as kids growing up in the
California eucalyptus school.
SHEETS: But it was marvelous to have that gallery. Then
the Stendahl Gallery at that time was in the Ambassador
Hotel. He brought some of the top Americans out. That
was a very successful gallery until the stock crash in
■29. Then both galleries closed for a while.
GOODWIN: Can you characterize Earl Stendahl?
SHEETS: Earl Stendahl is one of the most interesting and
in many ways exciting men I've ever known. Though I never
had any dealings really with him unitl, oh, the last twenty
years, when I bought occasional works of art from him, I
used to go into his gallery constantly. He had American
paintings, like Childe Hassam and a whole group of the
New England painters, some of the painters from Pennsylvania,
the sort of semi-impressionist. Then he had other painters
like [William] Waugh and those people. I realize they
sound somewhat old hat today, but they were not old hat
to us in 1925 and '26. I used to go out there so con-
stantly that he finally asked me who I was, and we became
friends, very close friends. I traveled with him in
Europe. I have known his family, his children since they
were babies. I've known his wife, and then later, when I
was married, we became very, very close friends. I've
seen so much of them all of our lives. But I'd have to
say that Earl Stendahl had the great excitement about art
that so few dealers possess to the same degree. Some
people used to occasionally refer to him as the poor
man's Duveen. [laughter] I thought of Earl as being
much more than that. When he started bringing pre-
Columbian art into California, it was a shocker because
nobody had ever heard of pre-Columbian art. His excitement
and enthusiasm for it, which developed then into art of
the world, became much more than just pre-Columbian. It
was because he had this desire to learn, and of course
he traveled the world more thoroughly than most people
and really saw more and cared more. A great man. I
really loved him.
GOODWIN: It seems so remarkable to me that he was as
instrumental as he was in promoting pre-Columbian and
ethnic art nationally without having any formal back-
ground to do that.
SHEETS: No formal background at all. If you compared it
to selling the typical California art of that time — Edgar
Payne, [Hanson] Puthoff , painters who painted very nice,
simple atmospheric California hillsides — it's a big jump.
And he made it, and I don't know how he happened to make
it. On the other hand, he used to be interested when
artists from Mexico came here. He used to be interested
when artists from Europe came here. Long before most of
these people were involved, he knew the artists, the top
artists of Europe and of Mexico. I presume it might have
been either Diego Rivera or [Miguel] Covarrubias, but I
think one or the other, I'm pretty sure, because he knew
them both so well. I think one or the other was the one
that perhaps started his interest in pre-Columbian art.
TAPE NUMBER: I, SIDE TWO
NOVEMBER 17, 1976
GOODWIN: How did the Cowie Galleries compare to the
Stendahl Gallery in those early days?
SHEETS: Cowie was similar in a way. I think, really, he
just sort of filled in after Stendahl left that area of
art. He was much later than Stendahl — I don't know how
much later, but I would say perhaps ten years from the
time Mr. Stendahl had his early gallery in the Ambassador
Hotel until he opened the one on Wilshire Boulevard. I
think Cowie opened his gallery about the time that Earl
moved to Wilshire Boulevard. Many of the artists that
Earl Stendahl had handled originally went over to the —
well, I remember now; I can tell you what really happened.
A group of artists, when the Depression came, decided to
rent the Biltmore Gallery. They formed an association of
artists. They rented it, and they hired someone to run
it, but it was more like a cooperative. They struggled
along with it for, I think, two or three years, and then
Mr. Cowie came from, I believe, the East. Whether he
simply bought into it or they hired him, I don't know,
but I know that there was some kind of business relation-
ship between the original group and Mr. Cowie. Then later
he bought them out and ran the Biltmore Gallery for, oh,
goodness, twenty-five years before he moved out into the
Wilshire district. He remained almost entirely on the
western art side — not meaning the cowboy side, but the
artists who lived out here. People like Emil Kosa and
a whole group of others were with Cowie for most of their
lives. He served a very important part in not only pre-
senting them well but giving them a first-rate outlet.
He had a very fine clientele, and he was a very important
man in this area from the period of the middle thirties
on through until his death. Then unfortunately his
gallery was closed, whereas Earl had made the shift over
into the ethnic arts. I had an exhibition, I think, too,
on Wilshire Boulevard in the Stendahl Gallery. They were
arranged by my dealer, Mr. Hatfield, in collaboration with
Mr. Stendahl. Those were the only experiences I had,
really, in business as far as Stendahl was concerned,
but Cowie was very important.
GOODWIN: We're going to talk about Hatfield in a moment,
but do you remember some of the other Los Angeles dealers
at this time? [pause] They must be pretty obscure.
SHEETS: There were practically no dealers except Stendahl
and Cowie and Hatfield in those early days. There were
dealers who came from New York and who did show in hotel
rooms, apartments they would lease for a time; but the
whole scene of Beverly Hills and the galleries that
developed there, that didn't start until really after
the war. There were a few dealers that came, and then
they would leave. But the ones that hung on were those
GOODWIN: How did you become commercially involved with
SHEETS: Well, that was a great excitement in my life.
I was in my third year at Chouinard, or really the end
of my second year at Chouinard, and I received a telephone
call at the school from Mr. Hatfield. Though I had been
in the Hatfield Gallery countless times looking at these
things that really shook me up — like van Goghs, and I
remember particularly a Matisse show--I had never spoken
to Mr. Hatfield. He had always been very nice when we
students went over there. In fact, I had my noon hour
there pretty often, because I very often went without
lunch to buy paint, and I spent the noon hour in the
Hatfield Gallery. It was just marvelous the way he
treated us, but I never had actually met him. I don't
know that he knew who I was out of all the kids that
came in there, but he called the school one day and
asked me to call him. I telephoned him, and he said,
"I would very much like to talk to you, if you could
come over some time." So I couldn't wait. I went over.
I didn't know what he wanted to talk to me about. He sat
me down, and he said, "Now, I have seen some of your
things in exhibitions at the museum and two or three
places. I realize you're just getting started, but so
See, I don't know that you know this, but the Newhouse
Gallery, Bert Newhouse in New York, opened the gallery on
Seventh Street, and it was called the Newhouse Gallery. I
think they opened in 1926, and Mr. Hatfield worked for Mr.
Newhouse. You know the Newhouse Gallery in New York?
SHEETS: Bert Newhouse started the gallery. When the
crash came, they closed the gallery because there just
wasn't any business, and Mr. Hatfield opened a business
really in an apartment house on Wilshire Boulevard, where
he lived for some time. It wasn't until the early thirties,
like '33 or -4, that he opened the gallery at the Ambassador
Hotel. I'm getting ahead of the story.
He explained to me that the gallery was just getting
started in Los Angeles, and he said, "I'm very much
interested, and Mr. Newhouse is, in your painting. We've
seen it, and we think that maybe you have a potential. We
don't know. We don't know whether it's going to be prac-
tical to handle it, but if you would put everything that
you've got into it for five years, we'll do the same.
But don't count on anything for five years because it's
going to take a while to build up a following." I was
terribly excited, needless to say. I was just thrilled
to death, and I started to work toward a show. I had my
first exhibition in 1929, which was about a year and a
half later. Well, it was just the greatest thing that
could ever happen to a young person, being still in art
school being asked to do this. I worked very hard. I
painted oils, watercolors, drawings, and etchings —
As I think you know, two weeks before the show opened,
I won a prize in Texas, which was a fantastic windfall for
a guy that had been going without lunch to buy paint. I
won the $1,750 ptize in the Davis [Edgar B. Davis Prize]
competition in San Antonio [Witte Memorial Museum] --which,
by the way, not only let me go to Europe for the better
part of a year, but a young architect that I knew [Bill
Veale] , a very close friend of mine who had been loaning
me his car for a couple of years to go painting with (be-
cause I didn't have a car) and who had always wanted to
go to Germany to study modern architecture at the Bauhaus,
we had enough money so that he could go to the Bauhaus and
I could travel all over Europe. We went, by the way, to
Central and South America for thirty-one days on a trip
before we even left New York to go to Europe, all with
that $1,7 50, which is hard to conceive of today, when
you know what travel costs.
GOODWIN: I want to talk in some detail about that trip,
but let's talk about the show.
SHEETS: Right. Well, anyway, we opened the show, and
I've always been very touched by the fact that Bert
Newhouse bought the first watercolor out of my show.
And he still has it hanging in his apartment in New York,
which pleases me very much. I think he's more sentimental
than I am or he'd have gotten rid of it a long time ago.
But it was a great success actually. We hadn't planned
on it being, but they sold the major part of the exhibition
out. Of course, that just made it easier for the trip and
everything else. It was just a matter of timing. Of
course, in 1929 there was a great deal of money; and it
was in the spring, and the crash came in the fall. I was
in Europe when the crash came, and I didn't even know what
they meant. But then I did win a whole series of prizes
GOODWIN: What were some of the others?
SHEETS: Well, I won the major prize at the Los Angeles
County Fair, and I won a prize at Laguna Beach, and I won
one in San Francisco. I don't remember all. I could give
these more accurately if I looked them up. But it just
seemed like a moment when prizes came easily. I didn't
need a hell of a lot of stimulation, but the exhibition
really meant a great deal to me. Well, you don't want
to talk about Europe yet.
GOODWIN: Had you finished school by this time?
SHEETS: Yes, I suppose you never finish school, but I
was not taking regular classes. I was teaching, I think
two or three sessions a week, and just painting like mad.
I was still seeing people like Clarence Hinkle and Tolles
Chamberlain in particular. They always wanted to see what
I was doing, and they were so wonderful as really stimu-
lating teachers, and I went on with them literally for
years. It wasn't a matter of taking classes, but because
we were friends.
GOODWIN: Did Chouinard actually grant a degree?
SHEETS: No, in those days it did not. Of course it
doesn't exist now, but it did in the last few years of
its life, before it was merged into Cal Arts. It gave
a degree. It was a professional degree, strictly. It
did not comply with a lot of the regimented degrees of
general cultural background. But they did have some
history; they did have certain things. When Walt Disney
was supporting the school, they had some very fine courses
that were required in addition to the art courses.
GOODWIN: So in 1929 you began your trip?
SHEETS: Well, I think I should tell you one thing before
1929. Phil Dike, who started to the school [Chouinard]
the same day I did, and we're very close friends— by the
time we'd finished our second full year of school, we
decided we should have a studio. We should not just take
every class every day; we should start to become painters.
So we rented a funny stable up on North Alvarado. We
worked like the devil for a month getting it fixed up,
and we kind of halfway divided it. This wasn't where we
would sleep, but it was a real working studio. I remember
we stretched canvases like mad. We got eight or ten
canvases ahead for each of us; we had our watercolor
board set up; we had everything. The first day we said,
"Now, tomorrow, we're going to start painting." We each
started painting, but couldn't see each other on the
opposite sides of this little partition. I think it was
about ten o'clock, and I don't know whether he came over
to my side or I went over to his side, but we thought it
would be so much fun to go down to the coffee break to
the school. The idea of being absolutely alone in a
studio after being around all these people was so difficult,
I can't even begin to tell you what a blow it was really to
be confined there just with yourself to fight these things
out. We managed to go down there about once or twice a
week for maybe a month or two before we housebroke our-
selves, and then we really had a ball working. We had
an exhibition together.
I got my first mural job in a big club down toward
Balboa. I asked Phil to work with me on it, which he did.
We were just beginning to really get into things with a
bang, and Phil had a terrible ruptured appendix and
almost died, which blew up our studio because I couldn't
afford to do it alone. Phil was sick as could be for at
least seven or eight months. He had peritonitis — and
you know that's a serious matter--but he recovered,
GOODWIN: Herbert Jepson is another artist who's being
studied in this project, and I read some of the tran-
scripts of his interviews. He talks a little about you,
and he says you used to cut class frequently. [laughter]
SHEETS: Because I liked to paint. [laughter]
GOODWIN: That's right. He said you'd go on field trips.
SHEETS: Yeah. I used to cut life drawing once in a while,
and Chamberlain was so tough — he used to give me hell every
time I came back — so I gave up cutting that. But I did
sometimes not appear in the painting classes. I went out
painting. But Jepson was one of the same group. He
started the same day I did. It was a marvelous group of
people. We had one of the most talented students I have
ever known in my life, a fellow by the name of Pat O'Day,
a brilliant young painter. I don't know to this day what-
ever became of him. He went to work for a decorator after
he finished school, and I knew that he worked for him for
three or four years. I can't believe he's alive, because
I think he was by far the most talented of all of us. He
had tremendous taste and feeling in everything he did.
Chamberlain just nearly swooned every time he saw one of
his paintings, and we all did.
GOODWIN: Did you get grades in your courses?
SHEETS: More or less satisfactory, unsatisfactory. They
didn't really give numerical grades or letter grades, but
they wouldn't stand for any fooling around. They knew I
wasn't fooling around when I cut class. I did cut class
GOODWIN: Were you specializing in mural painting or
watercolor painting or something else?
SHEETS: Well, mostly oil landscape. I was painting a
great deal outdoors. I'd take big canvases, 40 x 50 can-
vases, right outdoors, set them up. Hinkle particularly
taught me ways of laying in a canvas so that you could do
this. It isn't practical unless you are willing to come
to grips with the picture immediately and get the whole
thing laid in, in a way. I enjoyed the way he taught us
to cope with the problem, and set the color chord, and to
set the value range and the pitch of the painting and all
that kind of thing. I used to love nothing more than just
to go right out and do one in the morning and do one in
the afternoon, and I used to paint like mad.
One reason that I cut a lot of classes was that they
had a tremendous session: all the Gypsies in the United
States came down to the Whittier Narrows to elect a new
queen. The queen died — and the queen is much more impor-
tant than the king, I guess, in the Gypsy world — but there
was somewhere between twelve to fourteen hundred Gypsies
with every kind of conveyance in the world, and tents.
It was a fantastic setup. I went out there with these
big canvases, scared to death, because I was so young and
some of these people looked pretty tough to me. There
were lots of the Middle European-type Gypsies. At first
they didn't particularly like to have me around, but they
became intrigued, and then a couple of the men would hold
off anybody that bothered me, particularly kids. I must
have painted a dozen or more, fifteen big canvases right
in the middle of this Gypsy encampment. They were there
for over six weeks.
GOODWIN: It sounds so odd for Southern California.
SHEETS: It was so odd, but here they came to elect a new
queen. They came from all over the United States. It was
a huge encampment, very, very exciting, lots of color. Of
course, they wore all their Gypsy costumes. The tents were
decorated. It was almost like going back to the days of
knighthood with all the tents and the horses. They had
lots of horses, too, as well as wagons and old cars and
everything else. It's just one of the sad things that
has gone out of our life, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.
But I remember I did get quite a lot of hell for cutting
almost a month. But it was worth it, and they felt it
was. I know that I would have gained probably more maybe
if I had stayed in some ways, but it was, you know, part
of my life.
GOODWIN: What's happened to, say, the Gypsy paintings?
SHEETS: Well, I think Mrs. Hatfield has several. At one
time Mr. and Mrs. Hatfield bought something like twenty
paintings. I was getting ready to build a house, and they
bought a lot of the early paintings, which they've never
particularly tried to sell. I don't know that they've
tried to sell any of them. I think they own several of
those Gypsy paintings. I know that at least one or two
of them are in museums, small museums that bought them
early. I don't have any of them.
GOODWIN: Do you have other examples of your student work?
SHEETS: Oh, yes, I have a few things, not too many. Some
of my relatives have some of the early things that I know
of. A couple of times when I've had a retrospective show,
we've been able to dig them out. We had a couple of Gypsy
paintings from Mrs. Hatfield in this last retrospective
show I had at Scripps. But most of those early ones were
sold to museums all over the central part of the United
States. I'm not ashamed of them. I wish they had more
recent ones, but it was fun.
I had a traveling show that Mr. Hatfield set up that
went to something like thirty-four museums over a period
of three years. I had drawings, etchings, lots of water-
colors, and oils. They went all through the middle part
of the United States, the Southeast, and down into the
South — New Orleans and Texas and Oklahoma and all of those
places. It just kept traveling. Many of those things
were sold in some of those small museiams. Some of them
were bought out of the show by people who wanted a painting,
GOODWIN: Let's talk about your trip now.
SHEETS: Well, the trip was a great trip. As I said, we
left here, the two of us. This man's name was Bill Veale.
We went through Central and South America and Cuba and up
to New York. I painted all the way, which was exciting.
The ship was a regular freighter with some passengers. We
hit seventeen so-called banana ports. As a rule, we might
only cruise for a day and a half or two between ports, and
then we'd be in port maybe two and a half or three days,
loading and unloading. Of course, I'd just go ashore
immediately and paint. I painted mostly watercolor. I
did some oils, but I painted almost entirely watercolors.
Throught the Panama and then to Cartagena, South America,
and then up to New York .
Here again were these things that make real interesting
moments in your life. I had a group of architects that had
been working with me. I had been studying etching, and I
was teaching them etching at night and also delineation —
which I didn't know too much about, but I drew well enough
that I could teach these people how to make delineations
in some of their buildings, and I used to do a lot of
delineations for some of these architects. One of the
architects in that group — this was before I went to Europe —
insisted that when I went to New York, I should go and meet
an architect that he had worked for, for many years in New
York. I didn't know how famous the man was. It was Cass
Gilbert, who designed some of the first skyscrapers in New
York. So when I arrived, he made me promise that I would
get in touch with him. Well, I did. In the meantime, he
had written to Cass Gilbert. I had never been more
beautifully received or entertained by anyone. This man
insisted that I come up to the office and see the whole
office by ten o'clock in the morning, and then he took me
to a very fancy club for lunch, and I felt like — you know,
it was just a great experience.
But the main thing was that he sat me down after we
got back from lunch, and he said, "Now you're going to go
to Europe, and you're going to see a lot of things. I'm
sure you're going to do a great deal of drawing over there."
(He was crazy about drawing.) And he said, "Have you done
much drawing of this kind? I mean, of old buildings?" I
said, "No, I've never done any of it, really." Well, he
said, "I hope that you will seriously get into it, because,"
he said, "I know you have a feeling for architecture." And
he said, "I think it would be a very good thing for you."
Well, I was so bewildered by Europe at first that I
didn't even feel like painting, and I drew, drew every day.
I made some of the most meticulous pencil drawings I've
ever made in my life.
GOODWIN: Where did you start?
SHEETS: I started in Germany. We went to Germany to get
this friend of mine going in school. [phone rings; tape
recorder turned off] It was exciting to see great old
Gothic buildings and all the things that I had, by this
time certainly, known quite a bit about, through the various
people that I had worked with—and [I had] done a lot of
reading, a lot of studying. But I could see why Cass Gilbert
said, "Draw it. Don't try to paint it." It wasn't paintable
in that sense. I went out to a lot of the small German
villages and made lots of drawings for about two or three
weeks. Before I left for France, I met a friend of mine
who had gone to Chouinard, an older man. He had come down
from Canada as a retired manufacturer the last couple of
years when I was in Chouinard and started to paint. We
became very good friends. I loved his wife and his kid.
He said, "If you're going to be over there, I'll come over
and meet you in Paris, and I'll buy a car, and we'll paint."
So we had the most fantastic time. He came over. I met
him in Paris, and we traveled for, I think, five months.
We went all through every part of France, worked our way
down to the Spanish border, and worked along the north
part of Spain into Italy. We ended up in Venice, where I
became very ill. I had some kind of food poisoning. I
really was sick. The doctors there said you've got to go
back to the United States, or else go to someplace like
Germany, where you have food that's a little more like
you're used to. Because of all this rich food down there,
I broke out in hives. Oh, it was terrible. So I returned
to Germany, and I was well in a matter of two or three
weeks. Then I went back into Holland and France again and
painted. I did a great deal of painting as well as drawing,
but I always kept the two things going.
So when I came. back finally to New York, I couldn't
wait to show Cass Gilbert a lot of these drawings that I'd
made. I'll never forget as long as I live, he was very
intrigued and very pleased and very excited, until he saw
a drawing I made of Mont-Saint-Michel. He said, "It's a
beautiful drawing. God damn you, you changed the entrance."
[laughter] If you look down that long causeway, you come
to a dead-end wall, and you turn around to the left and
then go in. I thought it would be better if I just put
the opening there. [laughter] I got the biggest kick out
of that. He knew Europe so well, he knew every building.
He knew everything. Oh, he was marvelous. And then when
I came back, he ... .
GOODWIN: Let's talk a little bit more about your trip.
Did you also visit the great museums?
SHEETS: Oh, lord, yes. I never missed a museum. I saw
everything in Holland and France. When I became ill in
Venice, we were headed down to Florence and to Rome, which
I never did get to at that time. In fact, we were even
thinking of coming back into Vienna and that area. But
we never made any of that. But I did see the great
museums, and of course that was the most fantastic experi-
ence because I was not on a tour. I was in no hurry; I
could spend as long as I wanted. That's something I guess
I've never been able to do since, really, to the same
degree — to just revel in it.
GOODWIN: What did you enjoy particularly, among every-
SHEETS: Well, I fell desperately in love with the twelfth-,
thirteenth-, fourteenth-, and fifteenth-century painting,
Italian and Spanish particularly. That hit me harder. I
had never heard of it. You know, I didn't know, hadn't
heard anything about this kind of thing. It was such a
thrill to see these, the early part of the Renaissance.
I was bowled over by the things that were done later, but
of course I hadn't gotten down to Italy, so I didn't see
the Michelangelos or any of these things, but I think that
was what hit me the hardest. I remember in the Louvre,
that fantastic Piet^ of Avignon. I think probably if I
had" to pick one painting that I'd rather have than any
painting in the world, I think maybe it would be that.
It's a painting that just hit me so hard in 1929, and
every time I see it I feel it all over again. You know
the painting I mean? It's a painting that I don't suppose
many other people would feel the same way about, but there's
something about that painting that is so ... . In a way,
it's outside of the realm of reality. It's another spirit.
It's something I just feel very deeply about. Of course, I
have always loved El Greco and more emotional things, too.
Well, that's pretty emotional. But I loved what I saw of
the impressionists, although strangely enough in France it
was hard to see them in those days. Here in 1929 there
were no big museums of French impressionism. I'm sure
there were collections if I'd known how to find them, but
they were not all over the place like you find them today.
I did paint and did get accepted at the Autumn Salon,
which was an exciting thing. You know it didn't mean a
damn thing, except that everybody said you have to get
into a salon. I worked like hell, made a painting, and
submitted it. Then it took like five months, I think,
before you could find out, but I did make the show, which
GOODWIN: Did you actually draw and paint inside the
SHEETS: No, I never did. I never had any feeling to do
that. I don't know why. I guess maybe that guy [Modra]
scared me to death when he told me never to make a copy,
GOODWIN: That was a traumatic experience.
SHEETS: My sails were trimmed on that because I never had
the slightest desire. In those days, you know, every
gallery had six or eight painters working in the gallery.
It was very different than today, when you see one once
in a while. But I loved the Dutch museums. Oh, gosh, I
thought they were just incredible. The Vermeers just blew
me out of the tub. I enjoyed the Rembrandts . I didn't
understand them like I do now, of course, but the Vermeers
just knocked me cold. It was all such a wonderful new
kind of food, and I never will get over the sense of the
excitement and the thrill of seeing these things.
GOODWIN: Did your money run out? Is that why you had to
SHEETS: No, no. I wanted to go home to get married. I
met my wife [Mary Baskerville Sheets] about two months
before I went to Europe, but I'd already told this fellow
that I wanted to take him because I wanted to repay what
he'd done for me. Of course there was a bad feeling in my
own mind. I could have just as easily taken her instead,
if her family had let her marry me then, which was a ques-
tion. She was going to UCLA. I told you she had her
senior year on the new campus. So anyway, when I couldn't
stand it any longer, I came home, and then three months
later we were married.
GOODWIN: Did she have art interests other than you?
SHEETS: Yes, her sister [Elizabeth Baskerville McNaughton]
went to Chouinard when I did. She also went to the
Pennsylvania Academy. I met my wife through her. My
wife was an art major, but in those days it was primarily
to teach teachers to teach. She has a lot of ability
which she plays around with--she does beautiful tapestry
weaving and things like that — but raising four kids and
having fifteen grandchildren, she has never felt that she
wanted to make it a profession. She's reflected it in so
many wonderful ways in our life. She has a passion which
is deeper than mine about art, and we've had such great
times traveling together. But that's why I came back. I
was planning to be there at least a year and a half, and
I could have, with the money that kept coming in from the
sales at the gallery. That would have been very easy to
do that. But I was gone about six and a half months or
so. I've forgotten exactly what it is.
But every minute was loaded with excitement. I did
get special things, like some of the caves in France.
That's really something that I hadn't heard anything about,
either. It was a pretty full, exciting time. I loved the
towns, and I loved the country.
There's a place called Espallion. The reason that I
went there was that I saw a painting by Frank Brangwyn of
the Bridge of Espallion, and I thought, boy, that would be
a place to go. So this fellow and I headed down, and we
had a hell of a time finding it, but we finally found it,
right on the Spanish border. It was just the truest sense
of French peasant living and a beautiful, untouched thing —
everybody gathering mushrooms and doing the things that
they do, at least in a French village in those days. It
was marvelous, the old dress that they wore.
Oh, one of the most exciting things that happened in
France was, I'd always heard about lithography, but no one
out here did any lithography. So when I got to Paris the
second time, when I was painting this picture for the Autumn
Salon, I went to several art stores. With my utter lack of
French, it took me a long time to find out who really was
doing lithography, where you could go and work. I found
out that a Monsieur Dorfinant, who was really the top man
in those days, had a workshop where all the artists went
to do the work. Instead of doing the work at home and
taking it there to be printed, they would go up there, and
he gave them very nice places to work. The stones were
there, and then they would roll it up right there and see
your proofs, and then they'd run your edition. So I'll
never forget climbing about four stories, in this old — I
think it was a thirteenth-, fourteenth-century building.
The stairs leaned, and you had a hell of a time getting
up, but I finally got up to the top, and right at the top
step was a door. I knocked on the door, the door burst
open, and the most pleasant-looking, wonderful woman, huge,
big — both ways--stood at the top of the door and rattled
off this French, and I didn't know what the hell she was
talking about. I had a portfolio under my arm, and then
just like mamacita, she reached down and took my hands and
walked me into the room and jabbered away. Then pretty
soon this little tiny man came around the corner. He was
just as little and squirrel-like as she was big. They were
both so gracious. They couldn't speak a word of English,
but I just knew that I was in the right place. They were
I didn't know how to say, "I want to make a litho-
graph," but there were lithographs all around the place,
and I finally had enough sense to open this portfolio and
show him a couple of these architectural drawings that I
had made. He nodded and was very sober, and no more fan-
fare. He just takes me over to a beautiful big table, and
he checks the size of my drawing. He goes over and gets a
big stone, or he had a boy that did it, brought it over
and set it down — put all the crayons and the pencils down,
and just more or less said, "Go to it."
Well, hell, I didn't know how to go to it, but I
looked around and here in this room there were about eight
artists working, and I could see they were just scratching
and pushing, so I started scratching and pushing. I didn't
know that through the door right there [pointing to a door] ,
into a little place about as big as that kitchen, was Henri
Matisse working. I didn't know who the hell he was. No,
I knew who Henri Matisse was, but I didn't know that's who
it was in there. There were about six of the top artists
of the period that were working there. I was there more
or less for about three weeks off and on, and it was a
ball. I met sculptors, and they were doing lithos. I
met painters, and it was great. There were some artists
doing posters for the theater, and it was really an
well, of course, I made my first drawing, and Dorfinant
would come around every once in a while and mumble, and
then he'd go on. Finally, I ran out of knowing what to do.
It looked to me like as far as I could carry it. I went
over, and I touched him on the arm, and he smiled. And he
came over, and he looked at it, and he said, "Mmm, oui."
With that, he pours the gum arabic on it and slops it all
around. He takes a big old thing and just swirls it around.
After he did that, he just poured some liquid on it and took
a big sponge and just washed my drawing off. I thought,
"Well, you son of a bitch, I know you're French and you're
expressing your utter disgust over my drawing, but couldn't
you give me a little warning." I guess the look on my face
must have been really one of complete shock because instantly
everybody in that place just burst out laughing. Oh, it
was so funny. A couple of guys came over, and one guy had
a bottle of wine, and he poured a little glass. He handed
me this glass, and he took a glass, and he tilted it up,
and we drank. I didn't know. I think maybe, you know,
I'm being buried, and this is my farewell wake or some-
thing. Then, of course, Dorfinant really laughed. After
they cleaned it all up and he got it etched up or whatever
he does, then he starts rolling it up. It's like a miracle
to see this thing come back. Four or five rolls, and it's
back. Well, before I left there, I met more interesting
guys and two or three Americans that came up a lot. They
were just marvelous to me.
And you know, I've thought about that again. Here I
was, I was twenty-one — well, that's old enough, but it
wasn't like twenty-one today; there was no background or
sophistication or anything else. I stumbled up there. I
can't even speak French, and they treated me like I made
sense. You know, it was the most marvelous feeling of
being accepted. I used to write to Dorfinant for years--
I 'd have to write in English — and then he had a friend
that translated it. Then he'd write me one in French,
and I'd have to go up to the college [Scripps] and have
somebody translate it. But they were just like mother
and father to me for those three weeks that I was there.
GOODWIN: Did you meet anybody in Europe with whom you've
maintained a friendship?
SHEETS: At that time? Well, of course, since, just
dozens, but I don't think so. Everybody's dead. See,
I was a kid, and I did maintain friendships with certain
ones in Germany, particularly architects and people that
taught at the Bauhaus, but they're all gone. I don't
think a soul I knew is there today.
GOODWIN: How did your friend fare at the Bauhaus?
SHEETS: Well, he did pretty well. I think he's the one
that suffered the most from the fact that he couldn't
stay a couple, three years. He should have stayed at least
two or three years. What they were doing was very inter-
esting and very exciting. He spent about three months
longer than I did. He got home in time to be my best man
when I was married, and I think he shouldn't have even
tried to do that, but he did. I think if he had stayed
over there for at least another year or two, it would have
gotten through to him, but he really gave up architecture
after that and became a business manager for an architect.
He did a very good job. It was too big a cultural shock,
too big of everything. I was, you know, just kind of
blundering through and didn't get stopped cold like he
did. He enjoyed it, he enjoyed it very much. He thoroughly
enjoyed studying the things that were being done in Germany.
In Holland particularly, some of the most beautiful buildings
were being done in Holland in those days. I think they've
been overlooked. Maybe it's only because; I've overlooked
them, but I think there were buildings being built, com-
mercial buildings and flats and apartments and things like
that, that were extraordinarily good for their time. They
included quite a bit of art in and through them, which
wasn't being done much anywhere else. Even in Germany —
well, in Germany to a degree, in England some. We also
spent some time in England on that trip — in fact, left
England to come back. But it was a rich, full dose, par-
ticularly when you always went to bed so pooped out from
just having experienced so much in seeing, and then I was
working so many hours. I never put in less than six,
probably sometimes seven or eight hours a day drawing
or painting, in addition to, you know, going to galleries
GOODWIN: So what happened after you came back and were
SHEETS: Well, I had a big show shortly after I came back,
at Hatfield's. It was very successful from the point of
view of sales. I never thought it was a good show. It
would have been, if I had perhaps waited another year and
let it soak a little bit. I brought back a lot of sketches
and a lot of drawings and paintings that I made over there.
I'm not unproud of those sketches. I don't mean that, but
I think that they were more off-the-cuff than any show I've
ever had after that. People liked them. I made the mis-
take of selling and giving away so many of the drawings
and studies that I made over there that I 'd just love to
have now for sentimental reasons. I have a few, but the
best ones are all gone.
GOODWIN: What were the prices for those works?
SHEETS: Oh, I think I sold some of the best drawings I
made over there for like $25 or $30 or $35. Watercolors,
$75; oils, $200, tops. But of course money meant some-
thing, too. The dollars meant something. But they were
not staggering as far as the prices were concerned. But
one of the things I've been grateful for is that Hatfield
has sold approximately 3,000 paintings over the years,
practically all that I produced.
TAPE NUMBER: II, SIDE ONE
NOVEMBER 30, 1976
GOODWIN: Last session we ended with Mr. Sheets ' s return
from Europe, his marriage, and a show of some of his
European works at the Hatfield Gallery. Today I'd like
to pick up with a discussion of some more of Millard
Sheets ' s teaching activities. You taught at various
schools, in addition to Chouinard , in the twenties, and
one of the schools was the University of Hawaii. How
did that come about?
SHEETS: Well, I was invited to teach in the summer session
of 1935. It was a very exciting thing to just go to Hawaii
in those days. Of course, you just did it by boat. There
were no planes. So I took ray wife, and we had a wonderful
time in Hawaii, except that she was pregnant with our
second child and had to come home ahead of me. But we
did have a marvelous summer. Then I went back again the
following year. Then, I believe, it was the University of
California the following year of summer session. I taught
there two years. Interspaced were, I think it was, a
night class that I taught at USC School of Architecture:
watercolor painting and delineation and things connected
GOODWIN: What exactly is delineation?
SHEETS: Well, it simply means that when an architect
designs a building, in order to show a client what it's
going to look like, he hires (if he doesn't have the
capacity himself) an artist to make a painting of what
it's going to look like. That's simply called, generally,
delineation — or rendering, but generally the word deline-
ation is used. In fact, during the Depression I could have
spent full time doing delineation. I did a great many in
the late twenties. I think I mentioned the fact that I
had classes of architects, and I was teaching etching and
became such good close friends of many, many good architects
that they wanted me to do these delineations. I liked doing
them because I really enjoy the problems that are involved
in projection, and I had to learn a great deal that I
wouldn't have learned otherwise if I hadn't made those
delineations. I remember I had a theater, one of the
first delineations that I had. I think I had nine
vanishing points, because it was octagonal, it was oblique,
and it had a lot of funny angles to it. I had to learn a
lot that I'd never known existed before.
GOODWIN: Did you essentially teach yourself delineation?
SHEETS: Yes, yes. I'd always loved to do architectural
things — old barns and buildings and street scenes and that
kind of thing — so it wasn't really much of a problem to
shift over into doing contemporary things. Even in those
days they were doing a lot of Italian Riviera kind of
things in Southern California. They did everything from
Eskimo igloos to Chinese theaters, as you well know, all
of which I painted as delineations for architects and
sometimes just as paintings.
GOODWIN: You also did some teaching at the Stickney Art
Institute. What's that?
SHEETS: The Stickney Art Institute was a small but very
good little school in Pasadena. The Stickney Foundation,
I think it was by the time I taught there — I believe it
was left by the Stickney family — had a small school where
they taught life drawing and painting and design and
sculpture and, I believe, dance. It was a good little
school. It was a fine little school. It unfortunately
lacked enough support to go on indefinitely, but I taught
there, I think, two sessions.
GOODWIN: Where was it located?
SHEETS: It was located on Fair Oaks Avenue. North Fair
Oaks. It had been an old garden — it's all been torn out
now — about where that new freeway goes through. But it
was a nice little institute, and lots of good people came
out of that — Milton Bradbrooks and a whole group of people.
GOODWIN: Was it a college-level school?
SHEETS: Not really. It was more like Chouinard. It was
a professional arts school, with fairly demanding standards
but without diploma.
GOODWIN: You began teaching at Chouinard while you were
a student there, but you continued teaching.
SHEETS: I started teaching a watercolor class in the
beginning of my third year at Chouinard or the latter
part of my second year, I can't remember for sure. Many
of us wanted to do watercolor, and I was doing them without
much knowledge of what watercolor painting was about, but
I was painting in watercolor because I was intrigued. Mrs.
Chouinard felt, as the school didn't have a landscape
class, that it would be good for me to experiment and try
teaching a landscape class. All the students didn't work
in watercolor. Some of them worked in oil, which I had
worked in practically all my life. It turned out to be a
very thriving class and became a major class in the school.
I taught landscape painting there for, oh, I guess six or
seven years, before I had to give it up on account of my
work at Scripps. I also taught life drawing and life
painting at Chouinard, in addition to landscape. It's a
tough problem when you start teaching people that you
started to school with, but it was exciting and the
students were great. They were very cooperative and
didn't feel like their nose was out of joint. So it
was a great experience. We worked very hard.
GOODWIN: You're given a great deal of credit for reviving
work in watercolor painting. Who were your examples when
you began work in watercolor?
SHEETS: Well, there weren't too many people painting in
watercolor here. Henri De Kruif was a very good painter
and he intrigued me very much. He was the first painter
that I knew that was painting watercolors seriously. He
didn't ever paint in oils, as far as I know. There were
two or three other people. I think [Edouard] Vysekal , who
taught at Otis in those days, was painting some watercolor,
and two or three others. There was a watercolor society,
called the California Watercolor Society, but I don't
believe it had over twenty or twenty-five members, and
most of those were not particularly strong painters. But
I became very, very interested, particularly from my trip
to New York in 1939, where for the first time I saw
Winslow Homer in the Metropolitan and then in Brooklyn
[Museum] . I made special pilgrimages to both of those
places the minute I arrived in New York, because I had
seen a book or two on Winslow Homer, and it was a very
exciting thing for me to see the originals. It all looked
so kind of common-sensible and not mixed up with a lot of
theory. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that
I practically only painted watercolor for several years.
GOODWIN: Did you study watercolor painting with Modra or
SHEETS: Well, Hinkle never worked in watercolor. Modra
painted in watercolor, but interestingly enough, when I
was working with Mr. Modra, we worked entirely in oil.
He didn't ever particularly push the idea of watercolor
painting. He was a member of the Watercolor Society, and
I'm sure that he introduced me to Henri De Kruif and to
another painter by the name of Carl Yens, who lived in
Laguna Beach, who was quite a character. He also painted
watercolor. Those were the people that really sort of
wakened me up to the fact that this was a serious medium
and that it was an exciting medium to travel with, par-
I loved to take trips , even though they were short
trips in those days, and go and paint for a week at a time
or two weeks at a time. I went up into the Santa Ynez
River Valley and spent weekend after weekend up there,
like four- or five-day weekends, rather than two-day
weekends. I spent a tremendous amount of time at the
old Terminal Island fish harbor down in Long Beach, when
they had a fantastic city of Japanese. There must have
been 3,000 Japanese. Most of them couldn't speak a word
of English. They were all from Japan. All the customs
and their festivals and the Sumo wrestlers, these mar-
velous big wrestlers that they had. I've seen all of the
festivals down there. I used to see them three or four
or five times a year, and I'd go down there and camp right
on the dock. They all knew me, and I painted down there
literally for years. Watercolor was so easy to transport,
as against having a bunch of sticky canvases and whatnot
to worry about. You'd finish in five minutes, you put it
in your portfolio, and that's it. It's something you can
pick up more easily.
If you work in oil, you really should be very consistent
and work with it on through. If you stop and then start,
unless you are very careful about scraping, it cracks even-
tually. I was taught that craftsmanship was important in
the way you handled the material. I loved to paint in oil
and particularly love acrylic for murals. But watercolor
is the most marvelous thing in the world because I very
often work on a painting I started maybe ten years ago
that I wasn't interested in at the time enough to complete.
You dig it out, and you see something there, and you may
change it tremendously, but there's no reason why you just
can't go ahead. You don't have these technical problems
GOODWIN: What are the basic steps in painting a water-
SHEETS: Well, it depends, I suppose, on the particular
artist you talk to. But some people make watercolor a
very precious medium and say you can't ever work over a
wash again. That is the first time, and that's it. Other
people have every kind of theory about it. But if you
look at the history of watercolor, and you trace it from
the early wash drawings that were made in the Renaissance
and on down through the English watercolors particularly,
who really made wash drawing .... They made beautiful
pencil drawings and tinted a little bit of color, until
Turner came along. He began to really paint with this as
a medium— nothing in the way of the strength, perhaps, of
Winslow Homer, but nevertheless they were big eye-openers
in the whole development of painting. His whole kaleido-
scopic sense of color and light and movement, which he
developed both in his oil and his watercolor, were very
painterly. They were not tinted drawings, although he
did do lots of tinted drawings, too. He made hundreds and
hundreds of studies in watercolor that were more like the
traditional use of watercolor, but he also took it way
beyond that in his serious painting. Then when Winslow
Homer came along, he really changed the medium from any-
thing like a ladylike tea party into some honest-to-God
painting. I don't think he even thought of the medium as
being precious or that you had to say, "This is a water-
color." He made a painting. I think this is what excited
me about it and why I feel that there should be no rules
First of all, I don't think there's anything that
you can do in oil that you can't do in watercolor and
keep it fresh, keep it alive. I don't think that there's
any key, whether it's high or low or in the middle or way
down in the bass notes, that you can't do in watercolor if
you've learned enough about the medium to keep it luminous,
and that is just a matter of relationship, both in color
and in texture. I think that it was this desire to push
it beyond a certain point that kept me going.
I felt after about fifteen or twenty years that I'd
hit a dead end. I couldn't go beyond a certain point. It
took me at least a year — it should have taken probably five
minutes — it took me at least a year to discover why I was
inhibited, why I was unable to go beyond a certain point.
It was this idea that you had to leave this one first over
clear, translucent wash, and lots of little white speckles
here and there, like Winslow Homer did and a lot of other
people did, to make watercolor look like a watercolor .
Then I suddenly realized that a painting has a pitch the
same as a musical composition. If you have a high note
and a low note on a piano keyboard, every composer doesn't
extend their composition to both ends. They can take the
center, third, or three-fourths down for a quarter, or up
towards the top, and they can compose. Well, an artist
has to do exactly the same thing in making a serious
painting. Where do you want to pitch the painting? First,
in value, in dark and light. Secondly, in terms of the
intensity of color or the relationship between muted and
intense color. All these things you have to preordain,
if you're going to make a serious painting. You have to
decide before you start where it belongs. If you go at
it just kind of methodically and let it work out, it
always looks like that, too, at the end. I found in water-
color, the minute I really determined the pitch and where
the pure color was to be and what shapes were to be
important, then I no longer thought about it as a water-
color; I thought about it as a painting. The moment I
did that I felt free, and that's why I think it's such a
fantastic medium. Everybody says it's so precious and
difficult; I think it's the easiest medium in the world.
Mechanically, if you learn that water runs downhill, and
you know something about drawing, and have a feeling for
design, and work hard to do what I've been talking about
in terms of setting value schemes and color intensities,
it's so much easier than sticky oil.
GOODWIN: Do you do a preliminary drawing when you make a
SHEETS: Sometimes. Do you mean on the paper itself?
SHEETS: Yes, I do a minimum amount of it. I don't like
to make a finished drawing of any kind and then try to
tint between the lines. I lay out very quickly, and with
the greatest economy, the basic lines, the basic shapes,
and then just go right into it and paint and draw with my
brush. I like to work from the more general toward the
particular — in other words, get the whole thing swimming
in some kind of a hopefully interesting juice that gives
it this color chord that separates good painting from
ordinary painting. If you can get that color chord going
and get your big shapes and values established, then you
can work as long as you want on development, on refinement
of detail if you wish that, to include detail. Or you
can spend more time even getting it more simple, depending
on what your feeling is about the subject.
I like to think that every subject presents a different
problem. I think it's much more exciting if you can keep
from the sense that you're painting yardage. I think that
sometimes you see an exhibition and it looks like someone
cut off, every three feet, a piece of the same color tone,
the same shapes, and the same character. I think an
artist reaches a point where they're imposing a style
without much feeling for the world around them when that
happens. I feel that if you're really interested in life
and the wonderful things that exist, there are no two
moments alike, and there are no two experiences, no two
subjects certainly that should draw out the same response.
I like the idea, whether it's in watercolor or oil or
acrylic, whatever the medium is, to set this chord right
and get the shapes working. The more you study the basic
character that exists, the more you're apt to simplify
rather than to refine, but it's just a nice evolutionary
GOODWIN: How much time would you spend on a typical water-
SHEETS: Oh, I guess the proper answer is fifty years . . .
GOODWIN: Or "the necessary amount."
SHEETS: But that's too often used as a way of escaping
GOODWIN: Are they really dashed off?
SHEETS: They vary enormously. Some of the best water-
colors I've ever painted, I've painted in an hour. I've
spent two weeks on others that I thought were just as good.
If there's a reason to go on and keep building for some-
thing, then you go on--not merely to refine but, as I said
a moment ago, maybe go the opposite way, to simplify and
broaden the punch that you're interested in. That's
another thing I love about the medium. I don't think
it's possible to go too far with watercolor. All you
have to do is put it under the faucet and take a sponge
and lightly remove what you've put on, or part of it, and
go right on. You can sponge down any dark. I've sponged
down pure black and made it pure white without any diffi-
culty, if I've found I wanted to move a shape for some
reason, that I've made a mistake in the impact. If you
don't just rub the color into the paper, you can (with
care, with a few pieces of paper as guards to the edges)
you can just lift (always with one stroke, and wash your
sponge completely and take a new, clean swipe at it)
you can take from black to white in nothing flat. It's
a great medium because you're not stuck with it, and it
gets over that precious attitude that so many people have.
To answer your question, anywhere from one hour to
GOODWIN: But you would normally paint a watercolor in
SHEETS: Well, I like to work both indoors and outdoors.
I like to work outdoors, and I work very rapidly, as com-
pared to a great many people, because I've been at it, 1
guess, so long, and I've trained myself to do it. Very
often I will work very rapidly for an hour or maybe two
hours outdoors, then bring it back to the studio and flip
it in a frame and have it around for a few days while I'm
working on other things. Out of the corner of the eye,
you look at this painting, and you begin to see all of
the things that need to be really done. I'm speaking of
one now that hasn't been tickled up with a lot of silly
refinement, but where you have the basic chords set and
the basic shapes set. Living with that a few days, it's
just as though someone else had painted it. You can look
at it with all the freshness in the world and say, "Well,
that needs to be kicked right here, hard; this thing needs
to be pushed," or "I've got something there, and I'm going
to preserve; and whatever I do in the way of refinement,
I'm not going to let that get away." That's sometimes the
hardest thing of all. It's not so hard to come in and
tear it apart. But if you've got something you know is
right, it's very magic, in a sense, to go on with it.
The addition of almost anything sometimes becomes a hell
of a problem, and you have to be extremely careful that
you aren't going to get lost in small questions. Now,
that's when you go outdoors.
Now I like nothing better — before I go to sleep at
night, maybe I've been reading a long time, and suddenly
ideas will begin to develop. I may take a piece of paper,
sitting up in bed with just a pen, and make three or four
pen scratches — not make any attempt to do anything that
anybody else would give a damn about, but to me it would
set the whole working thing in progress in my head. By
the next morning, I can go out to the studio, having done
that at night — maybe there's something in your subconscious,
I don't know what it is — and I can just start right in and
paint like mad and be sure I know where I'm going. I've
had this happen so often that I'm beginning to believe it.
I'd rather work this way, really, than going outdoors,
although I love both. I think an artist probably has to
do both, to not lose track of the fact that there is an
infinite, wonderful magic about life that surrounds you.
I think if you want to say, "I've got it all digested and
I don't need to go back," I think there's something kind
of smug and small about that.
But I love particularly working from — not memory but
from a spirit of something that hits you hard. Maybe ten
years before. Lots of the paintings I'm doing today are
made from a very minute pen scratch that I made ten years
ago. I have hundreds of notebooks filled with drawings on
every page. Sometimes just thumbing through these, I'll
see something, "Oh, boy, I'm going to paint that." It's
more vivid, the part that matters today in your mind, than
what your eyes saw, because now you're talking about what
you know, and not what you see. And they're two different
things: the things you know, the things you've really
digested, and you've really analyzed and you've really
observed, and you really care about. This is when I do
my best painting. There's no question about it.
GOODWIN: Did you always paint through an entire day or do
you prefer working, say, in the morning or the evening?
SHEETS: No, I don't necessarily move by, as they say, the
mood. I'm always in the mood for painting. I can't get
out of it. Sometimes I get absolutely pooped, and I just
can't maybe do good work, and I'll just go and lie down
for a half an hour. I've got a place in my studio where
I can, and I'll get up and feel like a million dollars and
work another few hours. But I like to paint, as a rule,
from eight- thirty or nine in the morning until dark. Very
often I go back after dinner and work two or three hours
at night. That's when I feel the best. If I could
organize my life that well ....
GOODWIN: Weekends, too?
SHEETS: Yes. I suppose if I analyze my life, I would say
that I've done more painting on the weekends. When I say
weekend, I don't mean merely Saturday and Sunday, but as
many hours and days as I can tack on top of that, because
that's when I don't have to do something else sometimes.
I don't get the feeling ever that I'm being pressed when
I'm painting. I just feel so excited to be able to paint
when I often have to do other things that I get tired
physically, but I never get tired mentally.
GOODWIN: Getting back to Chouinard a little bit more,
what kinds of points would you typically cover in a
drawing class? What would the curriculum of drawing
SHEETS: Well, I believe that drawing is so important as
a discipline and, I think, opposite to the two streams of
contention that generally are formed about drawing. There's
the academic approach that says, well, you've got to be able
to draw a cast, and you've got to be able to draw every
muscle, and you've got to be able to do this thing aca-
demically if you're going to be free. Or the other group
that say if you get down into that kind of detail that
you're going to lose your imagination, and therefore you
just emote on a piece of paper. Now, I think both of
these two different extremes are not only extreme, but I
think they're dead ends. I think that drawing is the
easiest way to grapple with the problems of structure.
Every artist must have the ability to understand
and to control, whether it's in carving wood or modeling
in clay or making a drawing or making a painting. You
must understand the meaning of structure, what lies
behind what you see with the eye: the way a plant is
actually formed, the way it grows, what its movements are,
what its essential qualities of structure are, rather than
just the fuzziness that the eye sees on the surface. It's
to understand what holds up this tree, which, when you
look at it with an unthinking eye, is just a great big
mass of foliage covering most of the structure, covering
most of the limbs and the trunk. It's the realization
that it's growing out of the earth, supported sturdily
with great root systems that go down like the tree grows
above. Then, as this thing moves up, there's a particular
kind of growth movement. Every tree family has a different
growth movement; every plant family has a different growth
movement. Every animal, every person has certain charac-
teristics that differ from each other. It's to understand
the essential qualities of structure that I think should
be the basis with which you approach drawing. Now, that's
both imaginative and it is also very demanding. It's to
be able to grapple with not only the third dimension, but
the two-dimensional aspects. It demands that you think
less about making a drawing and more about what constitutes
If one teaches drawing this way, one inevitably is
teaching a great deal about aesthetics, because aesthetics
are based upon certainly thousands of years of realization
of the structure of life, the essential things that we can
aesthetically respond to. You bend a man's leg backwards.
make the knee go the other way, and there's a natural
reaction against this because it's obviously a broken leg.
It's an unhappy-looking leg. Now, I don't mean that every-
thing has to be happy and everything has to be pretty, but
the more you understand about structure, the more you are
really attuned with the qualities that have created the
aesthetic understanding of mankind. Drawing is approached
this way, instead of reducing life to a perspective treat-
ment or something that simulates the way it looks to the
eye. I'd like to think of a man, if he's painting a valley
and a mountain that moves up or hills that move up, and
they're robust, wonderful forms, I like to think of it
almost as a man that's going to traverse the ground. He's
going to walk right into the thing. He's aware of whether
the land tilts, whether it's going down or tilting up, or
whether it's curved over. If you teach structural drawing,
it doesn't take the student very long to grasp how impor-
tant it is to learn certain things about perspective, just
as a means. But if you attack it the other way, and say,
"Now, your perspective is wrong; therefore, you've got to
put this line this way and this line this way," as they
did in the old academic way, what you're doing is just
making a very sad victim of the eye. You're not in any
sense teaching the mind to comprehend what's back, behind,
which is more important than what you see. It's the part
you don't see of everything that makes the thing total.
and a sculptor realizes that from the very beginning.
That's why, I think, most sculptors draw better than
most painters. In my opinion, I think that the most
exciting drawings sometimes are made by sculptors rather
than painters because they do comprehend the structural.
Maybe they're more exciting to me — maybe it's because I
like that kind of drawing — but I think that a painter like
Michelangelo, who was also a hell of a sculptor, really
never thought of the world reduced to a two-dimensional
view from the eye. The vitality and power of Picasso at
his best, particularly some of his great drawings done in
the Pink and Blue periods, when he could take a fine line
and draw the contour of a clown and never put one touch of
shading in, but expressed the fullness, the fatness in the
arm and the flow of the movement — this is something that
is comprehended. It's understood by the artist. It isn't
seen by the artist with his eye; it's seen with his head.
It's the most exciting kind of drawing to me when whatever
it is that you're interested in, you put the full life
into it and not merely the reduction of it to what your
eye sees. So that's the kind of drawing that I've always
been interested in trying to teach.
GOODWIN: When you taught drawing, did you begin immediately
with the human figure?
SHEETS: Most of my classes I alternated between the human
figure and still life, because sometimes it's easier to
break right into a life class that you might teach for two
weeks and set up a still life for a week, where things
didn't move; and yet they could come to grips with the
problem of the structure of every form of it and which way
are the axes tilted and so forth. Then immediately they
see that more clearly with the figure. Then back and
forth, they see the vitality of the figure and the move-
ments of the figure that they have to animate a still
life with. So I really liked the idea, and then I used
to take them outdoors a great deal. I'd get them to pick
out any weed, and maybe the weed was a tiny miniature
thing, an inch and a half tall. I'd say, "All right,
we'll go back inside. Now you draw this thing four feet
high." That's when you came to grips with the difference
between your eye and your head , or your mind and your
understanding. Whatever it is you think with, it's more
than just brain, certainly. It has to do with your heart.
It has to do with your love and affection for life itself.
I'd bring in birds. I loved roosters because I raised
lots of fighting cocks. I'd bring these roosters in, and
we'd put them in a cage. I loved to bring in all sorts
of surprising things, because anytime the student is more
interested in the subject, they put something more into
it. I think that just going to the same old life class
every day and seeing a male model this week and a female
model next week — and even though I always like to see the
female models — to me it's what you're trying to do in the
way of developing the perceptive insight. Not the kind of
drawings they make — the drawings will come inevitably if
they have the perception. All that you can do for a
student is to hope to entice him or her into getting
excited about comprehension. If they understand it, they
can draw it. They can look at it and get clever as hell
tickling up kneecaps and breasts and anything else as far
as that goes, but it doesn't mean anything. It's to
comprehend the magic of the full form that I think is
Out of the years of having taught drawing, it's been
exciting to me to see how certain people, certain students
along the way — not due to me but due because they had it,
certainly because it was in them — once they grasped this
thing, they were the ones that just moved right out ahead
into space and ended up very often in an abstract world or
some other world. It didn't have to be a realistic world
in a representational sense, because to me the best
abstract art is basically very structural. An artist
that understands structure, understands the real organism
of color and all this kind of thing, is the guy or gal
that can put an abstract thing together. So it's not a
matter of just teaching little disciplines or little
skills. It's making the head comprehend. Of course, I
apply the same thing to painting or to modeling and
sculpture or designing a building.
GOODWIN: What's the most difficult kind of problem that
you would present to students? Would it be a group of
SHEETS: Well, that's an interesting question, because
recently in my teaching, quite recently ....
GOODWIN: You're not doing any more teaching?
SHEETS: Well, I've been teaching a great deal the last
three or four years. I take at least one group a year
somewhere on a workshop, maybe to Japan or to Tahiti or
to Greece. That's been partly so I could plan a year
ahead, having agreed or contracted myself to do this with
the people that put on these workshops. I've had to say
to my office and to clients that I'm not going to be here
for a month. That's part of the reason. The second reason
is, I guess it's probably like an old fire-engine horse:
when the bell goes off, he likes to go to a fire. I love
to teach. I really believe that people who are on the
firing line should do it. I don't think it should be left
up to people who just theorize about it, or who may have
done some work but who haven't really gone out and really
won their spurs. I think students need people who will
come to them, without any question admitting they know
very little, but who are going to tell about what they
think really is important. So I love to teach, and I
think last year I taught five workshops.
GOODWIN: How large are the groups?
SHEETS: I try to limit them to twenty-two, but sometimes
they crawl up to thirty-five or thirty-eight — not by my
choice, but because it was hard to eliminate certain ones.
But recently, and this is a sad commentary when you think
of fifty years of teaching, I think I've not only done the
best teaching, but I think I have learned much more how to
present the kind of problem that challenges both their
intellectual capacity and their emotional insight. By
literally manufacturing the kind of problem that stirs
the hell out of them, I've gotten results I've never
dreamed of before, both in color, design, and in the
realization of how important drawing is. I constantly say
to students, "You must carry a book with you all the time,
and unless you make one drawing a day--not for the sake of
a drawing, but to learn something about something you didn't
know about (there isn't a house, there isn't a place in the
world that doesn't have something that you ought to inves-
tigate)— you aren't being true to yourself."
Working this last summer  , I had about fifty
artists up at Asilomar at Jade Fong ' s workshop. Some of
them were extremely talented and extremely advanced in
their painting techniques and skills, particularly in
watercolor, but I found, like most such groups, they're
abominably weak in the structural sense. They paint water-
colors that not only win big national prizes, and they get
in all the shows, but if you have the knowledge to know
what should be there in addition to what is there — in
other words, if you really know what structure means and
you look at this thing and you say, "Well, they have a
marvelous taste. They have a wonderful sense of the
aesthetic beauty of texture and color and movement and
all of that." But to anyone that knows, it's a dead
giveaway if the other thing doesn't exist. It could be
an abstraction; I'm not talking about representation
versus abstraction. You know whether it is or it isn't
there. I found in this last summer's work particularly
that I got these people so excited about really trying
to go back into structure — in fact, in two weeks of solid
work up there, eight hours a day, it was astounding to see
what they did within their own painting and the excitement
that they felt having made this development. This is where
some of the painters have been working twenty, twenty-five
GOODWIN: What were the problems that you assigned?
SHEETS: Well, I gave them some very strong problems in
color relationships and shape relationships, but then made
them go out and make drawings that were very hard-boiled
in terms of subject matter. They came back and applied
those drawings right on top of just some exciting color
and shape relationships. Then they begin to see how they
work the structural side right on top of those tonalities
that were already established. It's so hard to take them
out and say, "Now, no color ever repeats itself; no shape
ever repeats itself. You can do that, and a real artist
eventually can do it." But you can show them that a
painting must have a color chord or it isn't going to be
worth a damn. I don't care how you paint it or who painted
it or when it was painted, a painting without it loses. It
doesn't last. It disappears in time. But a picture can be
very modest if it has this magic of a special color chord
and a value relationship and design sense that will go on.
So they treat this quite abstractly first, really organizing
some shapes and some color, and I gave them some very
deliberately tough restrictions. Then they would go out
with no thought of what they'd already done. Sometimes
I'd have them do it the other way around: I'd have them
make a drawing without knowing where they were going to go,
and then come back and make this thing. I then said, "All
right, now take that drawing and just lay it down, the
basic shapes, right on top of this thing. Now let's see
what happens when you apply these forms, not letting for
one moment this color or this tonal chord get mixed up.
Let's see if you can keep the combination of the two." I
think I saw the most astounding results, and it was a very
thrilling thing. It has been a big thing in several of
their lives because I've seen several of them many times
They brought several things to show me they're so excited
about what's happened in their thinking, a whole new way
of going. Not that that has become a style — I don't want
you to think that — but as a way of reconciling the spirit
and the head. I feel that in painting, these things do
have to be reconciled.
I think of a painter as being a series of many parts,
and certainly the skill of a language is a prerequisite.
You shouldn't get a gold medal for knowing how to do some-
thing. The technical skills are very tough and very
disciplined: drawing, and control of color, and shapes,
and all these kind of things. These are things you should
learn, in the hard-boiled sense, intellectually, I think.
Your creative side is not in your skill; it's in your
quality of mind. It's the way you respond to life itself.
It's the depth with which you see and feel everything
around you that is creative. If you have the skills,
then you have the power to begin to get at this thing
which is within you that needs to be focused. Then, of
course, you have the third thing, and that is the purpose.
If it's to be strictly a personal painting or a personal
piece of sculpture, that's one thing, but if it's to be
used in a certain way, that's something else. These are
extracurricular problems as you go along.
But I feel so strongly that every art is so essential
to mankind, because these are the only means which we have
to get at certain parts of the human understanding, to
communicate areas that are otherwise uncommunicable.
There's no substitute for music or for painting or for
sculpture or for dance or for literature or for poetry.
These are such incredibly important languages that have
persisted through thousands of years and through constant
changing styles and instruments and techniques and mater-
ials. Never has there been a stoppage of change, but this
desire goes on to be able to say something that is other-
Now, if this is true, then I think an artist has the
dual problem of learning the skill with which to do it,
hopefully with something there that's to be expressed.
You can turn it right around. You can say, "With all the
skill in the world, if there's nothing there, it's sad."
But it's equally or even more tragic if you have a lot to
say, and you won't take time to learn the skill, which is
typical of today's educational system — to never really
learn the skills to free what is within there. Now, that
is real sadness. This I meet daily--marvelous, sensitive,
interesting young people, particularly, who obviously have
an aesthetic sense that's way out beyond what we had when
I grew up. They've been exposed in so many more wonder-
ful ways to so much more than we ever had in the way of
exposure. I think there are so many things in our lives
that, in spite of the confusion, has brought about a
sense of a response to the aesthetic. But very often they
get into these kinds of classes taught by, to me, people
who shouldn't be teaching, who bravo their spirit and bravo
their imagination, but say, "Stay away from tough disci-
plines because that's going to inhibit you." That is
baloney. The result is, you've got a lot of young people
today coming out with degrees who have the best of inten-
tions but have no ability to really become useful to
themselves or to anybody else. A large number of people
who would like to work, just to get a job, show you a
portfolio. I must say that it doesn't make much difference
whether they study in the East or the West or the Middle
West; the portfolios mostly look alike. It's a complex of
odd mixtures of all the different kinds of art that are
popular today in teaching. Yet when it comes right down
to some simple basic things like, "Do you know how to
draw?" no, they're not interested in that. They say, "Oh,
that's a terrible thing." I ask, "Can you really paint?"
"Well, this is my idea of painting," and they've got a few
little collages stuck together ^^nd that sort of thing.
That's sad, because if they had feeling, they should have
been liberated by having a language that gave them power.
GOODWIN: What kinds of materials do you expose your
SHEETS: Well, I like to expose them to as many as possible.
I think a painter should do sculpture. I think he should
work in ceramics. I think he should take some architecture.
I love to see them work in metal and wood. I don't think a
good designer or a good artist today can escape the need to
work in these materials. He can't do it all at once, but
in certainly four or five years in graduate school , they
should have had all these experiences. The problem is the
guy says, "I want to be a painter. I don't want to do
sculpture." Or the guy says, "I'm a sculptor; I don't
want to paint. I don't want to draw. I want to do this.
I'm going to be a ceramist." So they go in and they stir
clay around, and they mix glazes, and they put a little
bit of Japanese decoration on it, and say, "This is ceramic."
If that potter was taking sculpture from a tough guy who
really knew the meaning of monumental ity, who knew the
meaning of imprisoning within that piece of clay the most
exciting life quality, then the pot would be different.
TAPE NUMBER: II, SIDE TWO
NOVEMBER 30, 197 6
GOODWIN: You were saying, Mr. Sheets, how you would
encourage a student not to specialize in either painting
or sculpture or ceramics, but to become familiar with all
SHEETS: Well, maybe I should even clarify what I said,
because I think I misstated it. I think an artist should
use whatever basic medium or media — one, two or three —
that they would like to major in, but I think that the
broader their base of experience, the better artists
they're going to be in whatever chosen medium they finally
end up with. I think it's fine. I'd rather have a young
student say to me, "I'm going to be a sculptor, and I don't
give a damn what happens — that's what I'm going to do."
I'd love that. I think at the same time if you can get
him or her to understand that the more they really get
into some basic drawing, get into some basic design, color,
painting, that it will enable them enormously to be broader-
based people in sculpture. Of course, the same thing would
reverse, any way you'd want to look at it.
The reason I labored that point about materials,
working in a variety of materials, was this: I'm
prophesying now, but I'm guessing that in the next twenty
years the artist — the painter, the sculptor, the designer —
is going to be doing much more in connection with our
daily lives than we've done in the last forty or fifty
years. I think it's going to be absolutely requisite.
I think it's inevitable. There will always be the painter
who doesn't become involved in these things, but I think
that the need of society is going to be so great and the
demand so great, as I see it and have felt it for a long
time personally, that artists will find incredible outlets
and opportunities as artists. If they are able to deal
with the problems of today. Now, in order to design, you
have to understand what you can do with glass, what you
can do with metal, what you can do with wood, what you
can do with ceramic, what you can do with the new plastics.
These are all materials that unless you have some feeling
for their capabilities, it's not very possible to design
intelligently. Sure, you can screw around and make some
arty-looking attempts, but to really have the excitement,
the more the artist knows, the better. That's what I meant
by exposure to materials as well as working in a variety of
But just to finish that point, I believe that the next
twenty, thirty, forty years — I really believe this — will be
the most exciting years of opportunity for the artist.
People who worry about the artist and worry about govern-
ment federal projects and all that kind of stuff bore the
hell out of me because there isn't a thing in our society
that doesn't need to be redesigned, rethought, clarified,
enhanced, made more beautiful for a reason to live. It's
the artists that certainly should have the responsibility
of becoming involved with this. Our environment, we're
talking about. We talk about it strictly on the basis of
preserving wildlife and the fauna and the land itself.
There isn't anything about our country that doesn't need
to be made more aesthetically acceptable. An artist can't
afford to live in an ivory tower alone, only the great
ones, and the great ones will always live in ivory towers.
And I'd fight like a son of a bitch to help them have that
tower, but I don't think that is where you're going to
absorb these thousands of young, talented people who have
a great deal of ability but who perhaps do not have that
special capacity of genius, who need to apply themselves
to the incredible, wonderful opportunities as creative,
imaginative people with conviction, not merely as commer-
cial artists, not merely as industrial designers who learn
a little, narrow trade. I think an industrial designer
should have the broadest-gauged background in fine arts
(only I hate to use the words fine arts , but what is so
often referred to as fine arts, because this is what so
much of industrial design lacks) . I think that the broader
the base, the higher the aspiration, the more exciting the
opportunities will become.
Now, I say this not just because I'm trying to be
Pollyanna, but because I have spent a tremendous amount
of my life with tough business people, tough industrial
people, bankers, all kinds of people, politicians. I
love this. It's a great game with me. I don't play it
politically, and I don't play it to be a big wheel. I
play it because these are the people that I find extremely
hungry, deeply hungry, amazingly susceptible to a whole
new way of looking at life. If you can go to them with
ideas that they can comprehend — in other words, not just
a bunch of jargon that's mixed up for the art critic, the
kind of things that William Wilson [of the L.A. Times]
writes (which to me is gobbledygook : it has nothing to
do with education of the public; it has nothing to do
with anything important in art as criticism) — but if you
go to people with language that they can understand , and
you build the bridge between your background in so-called
sensitivity and experience in the aesthetics, and you
build a bridge so that you enable them to see into this
world, I have found that instead of being antagonistic or
feeling that it's ladylike or not important, they're
hungry. They grab; they reach; they become terribly
involved. It changes their life.
The greatest pleasure, I think, in my life has been
to know that out of every bank I've designed and almost
every job I've ever had that had to do with tough, hard-
boiled industry, I've not only made some of the greatest
friends I've ever had in my life, but I have helped people
see a totally new way of existence. It isn't because I'm
out to preach or to sell. They are susceptible because
they need it; they're hungry. They don't know what they're
hungry for, but they're hungry. That's why I think if we
could educate artists to be total people and not just
narrow-tracked people with a small view of the potential
of life or the potential of an artist, that this thing will
come about. And I think it will inevitably come about,
because we're drying up in this other thing. It's going
down the drain.
GOODWIN: It's a dead end.
SHEETS: It's an absolutely dead end. When you have big
universities and big art schools and departments in col-
leges that are without direction, without objective, with-
out philosophy, it is a dead end. There has to be a
meaning, and the meaning must be connected with real
people and real situations and not the snobbish stupidity
of our average art critic of today.
GOODWIN: That's a pretty profound thought.
SHEETS: I may be getting way off the beam here, but I
feel it so deeply because I love, more than anything else,
to see things happen. To me nothing is as thrilling as
seeing a painting or a piece of sculpture or a building
or a beautiful bowl or some weaving that I can say
unhesitating, "I wish to God I had done that." Nothing
thrills me as much as this. If you're an artist, I think
this is the only philosophy in art that amounts to any-
thing. Above all, nothing excites me as much as having
a young person develop into a total person and become a
real expression of the thoughts that we're talking about.
I've seen it so many times in the last thirty years par-
ticularly, out of the fifty years of teaching: the last
thirty years I've seen so many young people that are
doing exciting things all over the world.
GOODWIN: Has your philosophy of art education changed
dramatically over the years?
SHEETS: No, I don't think it has. I think it's clarified,
so that I can say it now in a way that I couldn't have said
it thirty years ago. Certainly thirty years ago I felt it,
but I was a hell of an inarticulate guy for a hell of a
long time. When I went to Scripps, I was scared to death
of what they called a lecture. Now, I didn't mind teaching
in a class--but the minute I had to get up and give an art
history lecture or in the humanities particularly (which I
want to talk about a great deal when we talk about Scripps) ,
I was absolutely scared, ossified. I think it was in the
third month, the president of the college came to me and
said, "We're going to have a series of three lectures.
You're going to give the first one, the architect who
designed the building is going to give the second one,
and our professor of architecture is going to give the
third one. We're going to invite 200 distinguished guests
for dinner and a series of three art lectures, and you're
first." Well, I came as near expiring as I have ever. I
went away for a week in the mountains, and I died twenty
times every night waking up in a cold sweat abour this
thing. If it hadn't been for my wife, who was far better
educated in English that I was, I would have really died.
I had some ideas, but she took some of the stuttering out
in helping me prepare this thing. It was a ghastly exper-
ience, but it was one of the best experiences I ever had
because it forced me to do things I never would have done
if I had not gone to Scripps.
GOODWIN: We will talk about Scripps in some depth. Let's
speak a little while longer about Chouinard. Did the basic
atmosphere of the school change, say, in the middle thirties,
as opposed to the atmosphere you experienced as a student?
SHEETS: No, I think that Chouinard was extremely wonderful
in the years from 1925, when I was there, until, really,
the war started. I think of Mrs. Chouinard ' s original
dedication, along with Chamberlain and some of the people
that worked with her in the start of that school: I think
they were so determined to build a good school. And when
you think of it without any support except the income from
tuition--there was no support at all.
GOODWIN: How much was tuition, by the way?
SHEETS: Oh, my goodness. I think my first year, I believe
it was $165. There were not over eighty students in the
school, and that paid the faculty and the rent. There
wasn't any money left over. In fact, I think I told you
I did lots of odd jobs and things to even help pay for my
tuition. So I guess I was about one of three or four
people wlio were- given any help financially. But the thing
that just amazed me during all those years--and we had
some marvelous teachers in the thirties ....
GOODWIN: Who were some of those people?
SHEETS: Well, I think of Phil Dike and Donald Graham and
Jepson, and many of the kids that were students with me
became very, very top teachers by the middle thirties, and
they went on into the forties. Phil Dike had become the
head of all color for Disney. He was quite independent
financially. It was a great job. He did a fantastic job
at Disney Studios. But he loved that school so much that
he came down and taught. In fact, Disney was so dependent
upon Chouinard, all of his first animators were students
of ours at Chouinard. When Disney really got going, he
joined with Chouinard in supporting drawing classes, to
teach people not just animation, but to give them the back-
ground. There was a wonderful relationship in the early
days between Disney and Chouinard. We were all very
close friends. Then [Rico] Lebrun taught there. I
think Lebrun was there for at least three years before
the war. I wish I could put it together — maybe later.
some of the other names — but there were some remarkable
people teaching there in those days. Of course, they also
had marvelous classes in fashion and costume design. Edith
Head was teaching, even, in those days. She taught right
up until Chouinard literally closed its doors and became
Cal Arts. Edith Head was a very faithful disciple. There
were so many people that really worshipped what Chouinard
did for them, as it did for each of us as individuals. It
had a dedication, and it never did get so darn big, until
the war came — I mean until after the war when the GIs came
back. Then it became a factory, like Otis and big univer-
sities and so many of them did. They suddenly jiomped up
to five, six, seven hundred people, and they had other
buildings outlying and that kind of thing. I taught there
until '39, night classes after '35, I think it was. I
taught night classes until I became so involved with the
air schools for the Air Force.
But in looking back, I remember that you moved into
a tremendously exciting atmosphere when you walked into
the school. The students were ell business. There was
no monkey business. Of course, they were far better
dressed than they are today, and they came in with a
great excitement. [phone rings; tape recorder turned off]
I think one of the main reasons that Chouinard was
strong during those years is that Mrs. Chouinard never
once backed away from the demand of a tremendous amount
of drawing, painting, and design, no matter what the students
were going to do. Now, Chouinard never did push sculpture
as hard as I think they should have. In fact, I think they
had sculpture classes that would come and go. I was sorry
that that wasn't made an absolutely adamant part to the
same degree. I didn't feel it at the time, but later on,
looking back, I would say that if they had a weakness, that
was it. But a student knew that they had to go into that
drawing class, and if they didn't draw that figure, and
learn to draw it well enough to go into the second year,
then they were going to be out of the school. They were
as tough as any college I've ever seen. Not by the ordinary
grade thing. We looked over portfolios twice a semester,
and I remember those long sessions of the drawing teachers
getting together. I was both drawing and painting, so I'd
meet for sometimes two days with the drawing group, and
we'd look over every portfolio. We would give warnings
or just say, "Out."
GOODWIN: Some students were asked to leave?
SHEETS: Oh, absolutely. Or were given a chance to come
back and maybe just take drawing before they would be
allowed to go on with their course. Because the design
students, particularly — those who wanted to go into
costume and then to just pure design, fabric and that
kind of thing — they didn't see the point. But the point
was they needed it more than anybody. It's so hard for
students who haven't had the experience to know how
important it is , but that was the thing that grand old
woman never once backed down on. Oh, she was a terror.
She was the sweetest, most wonderful person, if everybody
behaved. But if they didn't, God, boy, look out. She was
tough. Oh, I loved her with a passion. Her whole staff
reflected that. It had a great spirit, and they really
believed in these things.
GOODWIN: How long did she stay with the school?
SHEETS: Well, it was well into the forties, late forties,
early fifties, I think. When I became director of Otis, I
really felt terrible about this because I made her very
unhappy. I tried to explain it to her, but I don't think
she ever really did understand it. Then I think it was
about 1951 or -2 that she had a semistroke. She had to
leave the school, and she never was back after that,
although they paid great respect to her, and it was Disney
money that kept the school going entirely. They had no
other backing at all. I know that Disney put in over two
or three hundred thousand a year for something like seven
or eight years until the school was stopped. He did that
in gratitude for what Chouinard had meant to him and the
fact that he thought we needed that kind of an art school.
That's why he wanted to build this new, great Disney thing
[Cal Arts] , which has never done any of the things that he
wanted it to do. That's another episode in my life.
GOODWIN: Right, we'll get to that.
SHEETS: Yeah, I know.
GOODWIN: Let's talk about Scripps.
SHEETS: Well, Scripps was a great, new, wide adventure
into the far beyond for me, never having been to college —
as they say, being one of the unwashed. I first had an
exhibit at Scripps a year before I went to Scripps, with
no thought at the time when I had this exhibit that I
would ever be connected with Scripps. I had an exhibition
of paintings, and then the head of the department, a won-
derful fellow by the name of Morgan Padelford, called me
and said that the president of the college wanted to talk
to me about doing a mural at Scripps. I went out, had
lunch with Morgan and the president and two or three of
the trustees, and they showed me this beautiful wall in
a dining room. At that time, I think they had two dining
rooms for four dormitories. It was a beautiful end wall,
and they had several ideas. I was very excited about it.
We talked about it at length, oh, maybe over a period of
about three or four months. We settled on the price, and
we settled on the material and all the rest of it. As I
was very involved for the moment, I said, "Well, I can
start it in about three or four months and make the design."
It was the middle of that period of three or four months
that the president called me one day and asked me if I
would consider teaching for one year at Scripps while
Morgan Padelford went on a honeymoon to Europe. I didn't
know enough about it to be scared of the idea of teaching
at college, because, you know, I love teaching, and I
enjoyed young people. I was only twenty-three and a half
or something like that — I don't remember exactly what it
was, twenty-four maybe. My wife and I went out and had
dinner with the president and his wife and some of the
board, and they invited me to become an assistant professor
for one year.
Well, we went out, and the first thing that we ran
into we couldn't find a house. Claremont was such a tiny
little place, which just had never grown over above its
needs, and there simply wasn't a house. So we decided to
build a house, though it was the Depression. We traded a
lot that my wife's mother gave us for a lot in Claremont,
even. The lot was in Los Angeles, supposedly a more
valuable lot, but it turned out eventually it wasn't
because it became part of the growing black community,
and this one turned out to be one of the best lots in
Claremont. You can't believe this, but for $3,300 I built
a fantastic house. These are things that you can't compre-
hend. I borrowed all $3,300 from a savings and loan on the
strength of the $1,000 equity on the lot, which in those
days was a lot of money, they thought. We built a beautiful
house, with no thought that we were going to be there more
than one year, but that we could sell it and it was a
lovely house. A friend of mine and I designed it and
GOODWIN: Right near the campus?
SHEETS: Oh, it's about six blocks from the campus, but
just a knockout. To give you some idea about that house,
later I added a wing underneath the studio. In that house
there were two bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, dining room,
a huge living room, and a studio that was as big as the
living room separate from the house, which were 24 x 14
each. Later, when we had more children, I pushed the
studio up in the air and built a wing right underneath it
of three more bedrooms and two baths. That cost another,
about $2,900. The last time that house sold, it sold for
$69,000. The same house. It had a two-car garage. That
shows you what inflation is like.
Well, anyway, I went to Scripps, and it was the most
exciting thing in so many ways, except I had no good place
to teach. I was working in regular classrooms; they didn't
have an art room of any kind. Light was coming from all
directions, and there were too many students. I had some
marvelous young men from Pomona who came up, Milfred
Zornes and Tom Craig, guys that became very good painters,
were in my first class out there, and there were lots of
girls from Scripps and Pomona and every place else. Well,
I managed to get through that year, and before the year -
was out they asked me to stay on. They said that they
needed both Morgan and they needed me, as well as the man
who was teaching architecture and doing most of the art
Well, a very interesting thing happened, and it
changed my life. In the middle of or during the first
semester, I kept hearing the name Hartley Alexander. This
name was always spoken with such awe and such sort of
reverence by every member of the faculty and the students.
I found out by just listening long enough that he was a
professor of philosophy and that he was on leave. He was
back at the Radio [City Music Hall], New York, laying out
all of the art for Radio City, choosing the artists, the
sculptors, the painters, the mosaicists, and so forth.
Instinctively, being very young and very dumb, I developed
a kind of — and it sounds very stupid — a dislike for a man
that I didn't know. Well, what the hell is a philosopher
doing back in New York, laying out art, and choosing art-
ists? What's he doing this kind of thing for? Well, he
was a great friend of Bertram Goodhew, the designer of the
Radio City Music Hall, and he also had worked with him on
the Nebraska state capitol, which is quite famous for what
they did in that same respect. Anyway, I instinctively
thought he was getting way over into my kind of territory,
and what the hell was he doing that for? Yet I was so
impressed by the spirit that everybody had toward this man
that I couldn't wait to meet him. They said he was coming
back second semester.
GOODWIN: It sounds like you were going to challenge him
to a duel. [laughter]
SHEETS: Well, it's just the thing that only a young person
would ever feel. I mean anybody in his right mind wouldn't
feel that way. But I had been so involved with my world,
as I said, I hadn't been to college, and the academic thing
seemed to me pretty extracurricular. It really wasn't
terribly important. I thought the artists should have more
time in the art classes, and I had some damned good students
Anyway, at the first faculty meeting after the break in the
semesters, sitting over on one side was a man who looked
exactly like an Iowa farmer. He didn't look very pre-
possessing. He just looked intelligent. It wasn't until
some things were being debated in the faculty that I heard
him open his mouth. After he had said about five sentences,
I knew that it was Hartley Alexander. I instinctively knew
that this man was really very special. He didn't make any
loud anything. He was not one of these table pounders.
He just had more good sense and more insight and more
common sense than anybody I'd ever met. I was so impressed
by him and went up afterward and introduced myself, and he
said he was glad to meet me and he was anxious to see what
we were doing and so forth, that he was tremendously inter-
ested in the art department. A few weeks later, he and
some of the other older members of the faculty came for a
housewarming when we moved in. They brought us a lot of
lovely little house presents and so forth, and we had a
marvelous time. We became extremely close friends.
It wasn't until toward the end of the year that they
were at our house one night for dinner, and we'd had a
marvelous evening. This was during the time that you
couldn't buy liquor of any kind, and I had found a good
source for some wine. They all loved wine, and we had
had quite a bit of wine at dinner. My wife had cooked a
beautiful dinner, and we were sitting around just talking
about things in general. Of course, there's no one as
bright as a second-year art student or a first-year teacher
in college, and at the opportune moment I made some mention
of the fact that I thought that colleges weren't very well
organized. I had some very talented young people, and I
thought that they should be given a lot more time in art
and that I didn't see where all these humanities and some
of these other things fitted into the degree that the
college seemed to think they should. There was a moment
of silence, which wasn't even painful to me because I was
so pontifical at that moment I wouldn't have known, when
suddenly Dr. Alexander said, "Well, Millard, the trouble
with you artists is, you're not educated." If somebody
had taken a twenty-five-pound sledge and hit me right
smack between the eyes, they couldn't have hit me any
harder. His sweet wife, Nellie, stood up about that time
and said, "Hartley, you have an eight o'clock lecture and
we must go." And they all departed.
Well, I never slept a wink all night. I knew he was
right, but on the other hand, I think I told you, I had
been accepted at Pomona College and then had gone to an
art school because everyone advised me to do that if I
was going to be an artist. I thought to myself, "Well,
how does an artist get an education, if you can't get it
here in an environment like this with enough art and so
forth?" I really was upset.
His office just happened to be next to mine, up on
the second floor of Balch Hall. Needless to say, I was
there at seven-thirty the next morning, knowing his habit
of coming to his office about twenty minutes before his
eight o'clock lecture, picking up his notes, and going
down to his class. So at seven-thirty I was there, and
about seven-forty I heard him patter down the hall, and
I popped out, and I walked up to him as he put his key
into the door. I said, "Dr. Alexander, you said something
last night that really shook me right to the bottom of my
feet." I said, "I've thought about it all night. I
haven't gone to sleep. I know you're right. But," I
said, "I want to know how an artist should get an educa-
tion under today's setup." He looked at me with this
incredible look, and two of the biggest tears I've ever
seen in my life came down his cheeks. He turned the key
in the door, and he said, "Come in." His voice was very
husky. He walked over to the telephone in his office, and
he called down to the registrar's office. He said, "Please
dismiss my class this morning. I'm not lecturing." That
man sat there and talked to me until five o'clock in the
afternoon. He completely revolutionized — he completely
opened a world that I didn't know could exist, with the
most incredible combination of piercing criticism and un-
limited love, the kind of a guy that you felt socked you
on the jaw, and just as you started to fall he lovingly
held you from falling. That's the way I always felt about
Hartley, all my life, as long as he lived. We were
incredibly close friends. He just opened up vistas. He
opened up so many. Well, I just didn't know these things
GOODWIN: What did he want you to study? Did he prescribe
certain studies for you?
SHEETS: No, he really talked about what an educated per-
son was, and why an artist should be ah educated person
and not just a craftsman. They should have certainly a
sense of purpose and direction and meaning and their
objectives should be so much more than the normal objec-
tives that artists had. It was meant in the most loving
way, never in a mean way at all. He didn't mean it in a
way the night before. I knew it. But it still was a
sock in the puss for a guy that hadn't had too many, you
know, flops up to that point. But that was the most
marvelous thing that ever happened to me. I was so moved
and stirred by it. We never even realized it was lunch
time. It was five o'clock when we discovered it was five
o'clock. I said, "Well, could I ever talk to you again
sometime?" He said, "Well, why don't you just set aside
Tuesday nights for a while, and you come over to the house,
and we'll talk. Be there at seven. We'll just talk."
I went over to his house every Tuesday night for about
two months before I had the guts to say, "Can't I bring
some friends of mine, because I feel so selfish and so
completely wrong in being here alone? What you're saying
would mean so much to so many of my friends who are artists
that I couldn't begin to tell you." He said, "Well, if
they would like to come, it's all right." That started
what lasted about six years. Every Tuesday night, with
very few exceptions, I never missed — only once or twice
when he was ill. It became a thing that no one ever
really was invited to, but if they wanted to come and it
just turned out that they wanted to come, we never knew
whether there were going to be eight people there or
thirty. In six years and a half I never heard him repeat
himself. In six years artists came from as far away as
I remember one night a friend of mine, a sculptor
from San Francisco, came down in a semitruck, and he had
a piece of sculpture that weighed 1,000 pounds in stone.
Very often artists would bring things there, and he wouldn't
give you an ordinary kind of criticism, but he would talk
around the subject, and sometimes he would be very direct.
I made innumerable mural designs. At that time I was
getting all kinds of big jobs, but the only guy I really
wanted to please was Hartley. I thought if I could please
him, then I wasn't worried about what anybody else thought,
because he had such an open spirit and such a fantastic
idea about, you know, what art should be, yet never con-
stricting it. This night this fellow brought this big
piece of sculpture down. It took five of us to carry the
damn thing. Well, I think it took seven of us. We got
some big wood, finally, to put under it and carried it in.
We sat it down in the middle of this living room floor.
It was an old house, and I thought, "My God, it will go
right through this termite floor." It sat there. Now,
there were about twenty-five people that night around in
a big circle, and that thing was sitting right there in
the middle. He never mentioned it once, not once. I
became more embarrassed and more embarrassed. I hadn't
invited him there, but he was one of my closest friends,
the sculptor in San Francisco, Jacques Schneer , a very
good sculptor, actually. I became more embarrassed and
more embarrassed because I thought, God, what can I ever
say to my friend?
So when it was all over, and it was always at nine-
fifteen, Mrs. Alexander would walk in with a big tray of
hot chocolate or coffee or what everybody wanted, and we'd
have about fifteen minutes of cookies and chocolate, and
then everybody would leave. So at nine-thirty we got a
rustle and worked like hell to get this thing back in the
truck. We finally got it on the truck, and I said, "Jacques,
I'm so embarrassed." I said, "It's the first time this has
ever happened. I don't understand it." He said, "Millard,
I don't understand what you're talking about." He said, "I
have never had as great a criticism in my life."
You see, this was that man's capacity. He got through
to the guy and I was too self-conscious of the situation to
really probably listen as I should have. He said, "I've
never in my life ever had such a criticism." He said,
"It's worth twenty trips from San Francisco." Now that's
a teacher, isn't it? That was Hartley Alexander. That
guy was so incredible.
GOODWIN: What are some of the things you talked about?
Or was it a discussion? Was it mostly a monologue?
SHEETS: It was always a discussion, but the discussion
was nearly always answering questions. Or sometimes he'd
let you go a ways, and then he would say that you're on
the right track.
GOODWIN: The Socratic method.
SHEETS: But to not repeat yourself in six and a half
GOODWIN: Well, did he talk about politics or campus
SHEETS: There wasn't anything in the world he didn't talk
about. He knew the history of art better than anybody I
ever knew. He was utterly at home. Of course by this
time we were all pretty well involved with all these things,
so that it was so much fun to be able to talk with a guy who
could talk with such excitement about Greece or Egypt or
Rome or Renaissance or Dutch seventeenth century painters.
It didn't make any difference to him. Except the modern
world--he knew nothing about it.
Now, this is the truth of his capacity. They had the
first great van Gogh show in San Francisco about a year
before Hartley died, and I had never seen more than four
or five van Goghs in my life, which I had seen at the
Hatfield Galleries and a couple in New York. So I wanted
to go up with my wife, and we invited Hartley and Nellie
to go with us. We drove up to San Francisco, and next
morning arrived at the Palace of the Legion of Honor
museum at opening time, nine o'clock. They had about 200
drawings and about 200 paintings; it was the first great
show that ever came to America. I had told him about van
Gogh, and he said, "Well, who is this man?" I said, "Well,
he lived in the late part of the nineteenth century, and
he was a postimpressionist. " It didn't mean much to him.
I said, "But he painted his gut, and you know, a great
guy, and I think you ought to see the show." I think he
went up there mainly because we loved to be together. Well,
though they were so much older than we were, we just had a
ball anytime we were together. We had lots of fun. We had
to stop one night on the way up because in those days it
took a long time to drive. It was the better part of two
days, at least.
So we got up there and went to the opening. We went
in, and the four of us were moving along, looking at the
first group of paintings. Then Hartley kind of swung over
and went over to the other wall, and I was so excited about
these things — God, I had to talk to somebody — and I moved
over where he was to say something about it. For the first
time in my life, he turned his back on me. After about two
of those things I realized that he didn't want to talk to
me about anything. Well, we wandered through there, about
six big galleries or seven. It was a huge, huge show.
Finally, I kept running into Mrs. Alexander and Mary — they
were together — and they were just so excited, and I was
terribly excited. Finally, Mrs. Alexander, because he had
a bad heart condition, said, "I'm worried about Hartley.
I haven't seen him." I said, "I saw him about an hour ago."
This was almost two and a half hours after we went in there.
She said, "If we stay right here, if he comes from that
direction we can catch him, and would you do it the other
way?" I went the other way. Well, we couldn't find him.
So I went out finally to the steps of the museum. And way
off — I can still remember the spot — he was sitting looking
out into space. I walked up to him, and I said, "Hartley,
are you all right?" "Yes, I'm all right, I'm all right."
I said, "Are you ill? I'm really worried about you. Are
you ill?" "Oh, no, no, I'm not ill." I said, "Well, what's
the trouble?" "Well," he said, "I have just seen one of
the greatest autobiographies ever written." Now that was
his response to van Gogh.
He came back and wrote an essay on that exhibition
that I want to tell you was one of the greatest things, I
think, ever written about van Gcgh. It's just a fantastic
essay. If I can, I'm going to get a copy of that. His
son lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico; he's head of the
philosophy department there [University of New Mexico] .
I want to get a copy, because we had a copy and I gave it
to Scripps Library, and something happened to it there —
which I can't believe, but it did. I'd like to get another
copy of that and give another one to Scripps. It's an
incredible essay. It's so much of what we're talking
about: the real thing, not the verbiage, not the tickling
up of cutting off ears and that kind of thing. It's an
incredibly beautiful thing, a completely natural, instant
reaction from a man who wasn't really accustomed to the
whole modern development, really. He wasn't opposed to
it, he wasn't fighting it, but he just had never become
really involved in it because of his great background.
But it was Hartley who really conceived of the whole
concept of Scripps College, which was basically three years
of required humanities, double courses, two out of the five
courses required of everyone. It was the first college in
the United States to be based on the humanities because it
started this in 1927.
GOODWIN: It was a women's college?
SHEETS: Yes, it still is. It was the first college in the
United States that really had this kind of an approach,
where a student in the freshman year started with ancient
history and came up chronologically to modern times. Roman
empire, I think. Various professors in the separate fields
coordinated in presenting the course. They each lectured,
and then they had the discussion groups. So there would
be four or five professors in each of the three humanities,
the freshman, sophomore, and junior years. Art was never
separated from the reality of what went on in politics, in
religion, and every other field, that everything grew
naturally together--as anyone who knows anything about
the humanities understands, but it was a big experiment
in those days. Of course, I thought it was not hogwash,
but I didn't think it was that important until I became
involved in it and sat through all three years of the
whole course, hearing the other people lecture and coming
away a totally different person in a sense of relating it
to my life, which I never could have done otherwise.
That's why I think we turned out so many marvelous
students in Claremont in those days — the fact that it was
so different having a student from Pomona or Scripps, for
example. A Pomona student took a spot course in history
over a year and a spot course in economics over a year and
maybe religion or philosophy or something else. You were
at home talking with any student at Scripps at all times
in the history of art because they had had it. They had
had a different feeling about it. It isn't that history
of art is everything, but if you want to get started off,
it's a good thing to have some background in the fantastic
body of knowledge that we've come out of. These kids were
so influential on the other students that other students
from Pomona audited a fantastic number of these humanities
courses. The graduate students came into the humanities
courses. When we developed our big graduate school, which
we did after two or three years, that was all Alexander's
original concept and the reason he came to Scripps. He
was the head of the philosophy department at the University
of Nebraska and had a job for the rest of his life at a
very high, much higher stipend than he ever got at Scripps,
I'm sure. But he came there because the president agreed
that they would build the thing he'd always dreamed of as
the basic curriculum of Scripps. It was an amazing
TAPE NUMBER: III, SIDE ONE
DECEMBER 4 , 1976
GOODWIN: Last session we began to discuss the Scripps
College experience, and Mr. Sheets profiled Professor
Hartley Alexander. We were just beginning to discuss
the need to build some studio spaces for art work, since
there weren't any at the time.
SHEETS: George, it was quite an experience for me, never
having been to college, to go to Scripps — as I told you
at our last session, presumably for one year — and then to
become so excited about being there, and the college's
wish to have me remain. I became deeply involved with
everything about the college--the humanities program and,
of course, the art department. The most difficult thing
of all for me, having had only experience in an art school-
with ample technical facilities, studio space, and so
forth — we found ourselves working classrooms which were
beautiful classrooms but utterly unsuited as painting
studios. There was light from all sides, artificial light
that was very glaring and spotty, as far as studio light
is concerned. So I prevailed upon the president to the
best of my ability to help us find some kind of temporary
solution to the problems.
And it's hard to believe, but in those days I figured
out that we could build an enormous barn for about $3,300.
There was an old olive grove on the edge of the campus, so
I thought we could hide this in the middle of that grove
and nobody would ever know that it was there. "After the
Depression is over, if it ever ends, why, we can build an
art department." But I asked for $3,300. I remember the
day very clearly. The president. Dr. [Ernst] Jaqua , said,
"Well, Millard, I have a discretionary fund which I can
give you for $3,300." He said, "We can't afford it, but I
have the right to do that." He said, "But you are making
the most dreadful mistake in the world because what you
call a 'temporary' building isn't going to be 'temporary.'
It's going to be there ten or fifteen years from now, if
we're still here operating. That's just the way things
work. I strongly advise against it." I said, "Dr. Jaqua,
what are we going to do? I cannot teach. We need more
staff people to be added. We need to give these students
the fair kind of treatment. We just can't work where we
are." He said, "Be trusting and, above all, be patient
for one year." I said, "Well, what does that mean? That
you're going to help me raise money for the whole thing?"
He said, "No. We won't work that way. I want you to set
up a Scripps College Fine Arts Foundation, a supporting
group, asking for nothing but giving everything. I'll
give you the $3,300, and you try to arrange a series of
exhibitions. I know we don't have a proper place to have
an exhibition, but," he said, "you arrange the most
distinguished little groups of things that you can arrange
and change every month, and we'll get fifteen, twenty,
thirty members, maybe pay ten dollars a year for this
membership. But we'll spend some money for real speakers,
and we'll put on an exciting program and get people inter-
ested in art. If you do that it will come about without
ever asking for anything."
Well, it seemed far off and unrealistic to me, but I
admired the man so much as an organizer and in the way he
built the college, the kind of staff he brought together,
that I didn't have much choice except to agree with him.
So I started out planning the exhibits through the next
year, and I worked out a very careful program for eight
exhibits. Having just read Lust for Life by Irving Stone,
I was intrigued with the possibility of getting him to give
the first lecture. I didn't know him — I didn't claim to
be a literary critic — but I enjoyed the book so much. I
thought if I could get Irving Stone with his enthusiasm,
he would really bring to life this whole idea of what we
were trying to do. Fortunately, he had just moved to Los
Angeles, and I was able to get him. He, I think, was as
happy to have us ask him as we were to get him, because
his book had only barely been on the market, and he had
not become the successful author financially that he
became almost immediately. So for a sum total of fifty
dollars, or thirty-f ive--I never could remember for sure
which it was he asked for a fee — we brought Irving Stone
to Scripps College. He gave a marvelous lecture.
From that we went into other shows, and one of them
was a show in Pasadena which we arranged in the house of
Mrs. [Josephine] Everett, who had been a collector for a
long time of painting in California, and who had a lovely
house and gallery near the old Vista [del Arroyo] Hotel
here in Pasadena. She invited me to have an exhibition
of my work and to speak to a group of her friends about
what our hopes were for the future at Scripps. I did,
and at that lecture a guest of one of the women that Mrs.
Everett had invited as her guest came up to me after the
lecture and said, "I'm very much interested in this thing
that you're talking about and what you hope to do at
Scripps. I don't live in California; I live in Montclair,
New Jersey. I'm going to be returning the day after
tomorrow. Could I come to the college tomorrow?" I
assured her she would be most welcome if she came, and
next day she walked into my classroom and, seeing the
forest of easels and people, the confusion and the bad
lighting and everything else, she said, "My, you do need
this first unit, as you call it. What is it going to
cost?" Well, we had no plans. We hadn't had any estimates.
I thought we should go immediately to the president's office,
which we did, and without any announcement to him or any
prewarning of any kind, he accepted us into his office.
I explained what had happened, that Mrs. Lang was very
much interested in the possibility of what we were going
to do. She asked the question immediately, "How much is
it going to cost for this first unit?" I swallowed very
hard and I said, "I think around $37,500." (Because I
figured if we could build a good barn for $3,300, we
ought to get a fairly decent building for $37,500.) She
smiled in a nice way and looked out the window, and she
said, "Well, I would like to do this. I will send you a
check. I'm leaving in the morning, but I will send you
a check . "
Well, of course, I walked out of there three feet
off the ground, so excited about the prospect of getting
out of these holes that we were in where we were trying
to teach. I went back to my class and went home and was
telling my wife excitedly about this woman that had come
out of the blue, out of the sky, to make this offer, when
the telephone rang. It was President Jaqua . He said,
"Millard, I know how excited you are about the possibility
of this thing, but," he said, "I must tell you that I've
known a great many people, and I'm afraid there's a good,
strong possibility that this woman falls into a category
that we think of as delusions of grandeur. I am really
afraid that she is one of these people. She probably
gives millions of dollars away every month and probably
means everything that she ever says, but of course hasn't
the ability to do it. It was too easy. She volunteered
it entirely; she wasn't asking for anything." He said
she really didn't have time to get into the meat of it,
and he said, "I just can't believe that it can be real."
But happily, I can say that the next morning at ten
o'clock in the mail came a certified check for $37,500.
Well, it's a long and interesting story, but I'll just
brief it by saying that I wrote to her immediately and
told her how happy I was, and did she have any advice,
suggestions at all, as to what might be included in this
building? The only letter she ever wrote me was a return
letter in which she indignantly said she was fairly sorry
that she had given me the money, that she felt that I had
no right to ask anyone if I didn't want to stick my neck
on the block and take full responsibility for the decisions,
that she thought maybe she'd made a mistake. Well, I sent
her photographs of the construction, and then more beautiful
photographs. I made up a wonderful album after the building
[Lang Hall] was finished and the students were in it and
working so beautifully with the new staff that we'd added.
It made a fantastic impact upon the college to have this
opportunity. I sent her a beautiful album that I made up.
I never heard from her or never had any thank you or go to
hell. I think it was about two and a half years later, I
was in the middle of this beautiful, big studio with a
class that was probably twice the size it should have been.
a big painting studio, when I looked up as the door opened,
and standing in the doorway was this same gentle, little
woman— same dress, same hat, same wonderful smile—and she
motioned toward me. I , of course, immediately went to see
her. "My, but we are crowded," she said. "I guess it's
about time for the second unit." Unsolicited, completely
out of the blue, here she was, and it was such an exciting
thing. She said, "All right, now what's it going to cost
this time?" Well, this time we were very well organized.
We had a master plan, of course, that the architects at
the college and I had worked out for the whole art building.
We had actual cost estimates for the next unit, the second,
the middle unit of the three units that we built. I said,
"This time it's going to be a great deal more." Of course,
inflation had already started, and also we were adding a
very much larger chunk. This time I think if I remember
correctly, I told her it was around $18 0,000. We had
actual estimates at that time. She said, "Well, I'm very
anxious to get this down the road, so I will send you a
check," and she did. This time there was no question about
delusions of grandeur. We knew that she would. The same
thing followed: more wonderful excitement and adding to
the building, adding to the staff. Of course I kept her
It wasn't until perhaps three and a half years later
that she arrived again. She had never been out to see the
buildings at all, but she suddenly appeared again. I won't
say it was in the same dress this time, but there she was
and very excited about what she saw. We had lunch with the
president and several of the staff, and everyone had a
chance to express their gratitude and appreciation for
what she had done in such an unselfish way. I might say
also that she had insisted her name should not be used in
any way on the building. It was always an anonymous gift.
I had quite a time persuading her even to let me introduce
her to the staff. The president and I up to this time were
the only people who knew who she was and had ever really
talked to her.
GOODWIN: Madame X.
SHEETS: Madame X. The most charming, quiet, lovely person,
without any affectation, just as natural as an old shoe.
Well, this time she looked into the matter very thoroughly,
because now we were talking in the neighborhood of around
$700,000 to complete the whole thing with all the galleries
and the whole business. After I explained the whole thing
to her and gave her the budget, she said, "All right, I
want to see this through. But we're going to do it dif-
ferently this time. This time I'm going to give you
matching money. Whatever the people here raise, up to
half of it I will match. I'm sure that you will have no
difficulty getting the money. I could do it all, but I
think now the people here should be involved very definitely.
so that they don't think that it's always being done by
outsiders . "
I gave a talk to the foundation at the next monthly
meeting and explained that this lovely woman who had given
us our great bequests before had come back to urge us to
finish the building, and that she had made this offer.
All I did was state that the offer had been made. We
never directly asked for a dime, and in less than two
weeks, we had the money to do the whole thing. It came
in voluntarily, ranging from twenty-five dollar gifts up
to $25,000 gifts. It just seemed to come right up out of
the ground, and it's a lesson that I really think I learned
and I love because people who really want to do something
are so different than people you corner and ask for some-
thing. You can get them excited and gat them to believe
in what you're trying to do.
The foundation had become a marvelous institution by
this time. It operated quite separately from the college.
The members had their own officer, they had their own
budgets, they had their own reason for existence, but
they didn't control the college, and we didn't control
them. It was a wonderful thougnt that the president had
when he dreamed this up, that it should be an independent
body that would simply believe in the same objectives. I
met with them every month in their board meetings, and of
course we had our regular meetings with their group. By
this time the membership had grown to almost 500. We had
people coming from San Diego, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles,
Pasadena, and Beverly Hills, because there was activity
and excitement there and we had good exhibits.
I remerriber we started in those days, I think, the most
exciting series of national ceramic shows. Ceramics was
just coming back into reality. After the craftsmen had
neglected it for a long time, some absolutely marvelous
artists all over the country were doing ceramics. We
developed a very fine ceramic department at Scripps. So
each year we put on, in the spring, a national ceramics
show, by invitation. To give you some idea of the excite-
ment that developed out there — without trying to sell,
because we never would have assumed the position of being
a sales gallery, and we didn't take any commission— we
sold an average of $5,000 worth of ceramics at every one
of these shows, which was an incredible amount of money
for just a beautiful exhibition. We put on the shows
with a lot of flair because it was at the time that the
azaleas were in bloom, and we had a fantastic gardener
at Scripps in those days who had these great azalea
bushes. We could put the pots up on stands ten feet
high, and they would hang clear to the floor with
cascades of the most beautiful white or pink blooms.
GOODWIN: Did you actually handle the installations?
SHEETS: Oh, I did every bit of that installation. I
used to haul the material and put it up myself, eventually
with the help of a few students and eventually the help of
a staff member. But for something like fifteen years, I
did this whole thing alone, which was exciting. I think
it was one of the most interesting parts of being at
Scripps, to get to borrow great things and to have the
galleries where we could put shows on properly with
In those days it was so much easier to borrow important
things. Today collectors have become more cautious, as I
think they should become, because the danger in shipping
and the carelessness in handling art is really shocking.
I can say, fortunately, we never had any damage during all
those years, but I used to have my heart in my mouth half
the time driving through traffic, carrying incredibly
valuable things. People like [Walter] Arensberg and many
others loaned me some of their priceless things because
they knew that I had the same feeling they did about their
works. I borrowed things from all over the world, really,
for some of our exhibitions.
GOODWIN: Have you ever been active in ceramics yourself?
SHEETS: I've done just enough to love it, but I never
really have done anything of any consequence. I used to
turn a little on a wheel, and I used to decorate bowls
quite a bit that some of the staff members would throw.
We had wonderful sessions. The staff sometimes would work
one night a week for maybe six months. We'd get excited
and do a lot of things. I happen to be very, very keen
about ceramics, and I think that the majority of the col-
lection that my wife and I have in our home is really
ceramic. It's mostly sculpture, but it's also many great
pots and various sculptures from all over the world.
But the fun about that whole exhibition program was
that it was tied so completely into both the art teaching
program and the humanities program. I think that the
reason that Scripps meant so much to me, not only as a
marvelous environment in which to get an education
because I really hadn't had, as I told you, anything like
a formal education— was the humanities program. Did we
mention that much previously?
GOODWIN: You discussed how Professor Hartley Alexander
designed the curriculum.
SHEETS: Well, I won't go back into the detail of how the
staff worked on an integrated concept that was required
for the first three years, but I think the fun was that
the Scripps students who had the required background were
so easy to talk to in a painting class or a sculpture
class or any other kind of a class. Certainly in art
history, they had a background that the student who had
only had a smattering of a course here and there in art
history or something else never had. Of course we had
students from all the colleges. So it was outstanding
to see the difference in the way they reacted and the way
they felt at home in the world of art. I know you had a
question to ask.
GOODWIN: Yeah. You didn't name the secret donor.
SHEETS: Oh, I didn't? Well, when we finished the final
building, it was like wrestling with an angel, believe me,
to get her to finally allow us to use her name on the
gallery only. Her name was Florence Rand Lang. She was
from Montclair, New Jersey, but her history was so fabu-
lous. She and her husband had given numerous buildings
to Dartmouth College. I think they gave one to Cornell.
They had given, I believe, the majority of the money—
I'm not sure about this, but I think so— to the Montclair
Museum. They had built wonderful cottages up in Cape Cod
so that artists— I mean serious artists, not students but
serious artists— could go and spend the summer at Cape
Cod, rent free, to work in those cottages. She had almost
a colony of artists up there, anc she in no way tried to
in any way direct them but simply made the place available
to them. They were just genuinely genuine, wonderful,
generous people, who did so much for everything they
GOODWIN: What was the source of their wealth?
SHEETS: I have never known. I have never known what it
was. I remember we even asked it one time, and I think
she said her husband, who was then dead, was an industri-
alist. But she never said what kind of an industrialist,
and I don't know that I have heard the name Lang associated
with any particular business. They had a considerable
amount of money, but never in any way did she seem preten-
tious about it. It was the most gentle, loving sort of
way that she approached every problem. Later her grand-
daughter went to Scripps, and she was a very distinguished
student, fortunately. There are sometimes unusual incidents
when your best friend's child goes to college and it isn't
always true that the child is the most bright. But she
was a very bright young woman and was a great success at
Scripps — not because her grandmother had given the art
building but because she was just one whale of a good
GOODWIN: Were there art departments in any of the other
SHEETS: Yes, rightly so. Pomona College, of course, had
an art department before we started this department at
Scripps, but their emphasis had been on music. When I
was brought to Scripps, the idea was that we would develop
an art department at Scripps that would serve, at that
time, only the two colleges, Scripps and Pomona, the same
way that the music department served both colleges. Now,
this was for students who were more seriously interested
in art. They felt that they needed an art department for
the average student, and that was absolutely right. We
couldn't have handled all of the students that should have
had some art experience. But for those who wanted to
major in art, who wanted to come there and deliberately
come there because of the art, we were the semiprof essional
approach to that problem.
Some of the most distinguished people, I believe, were
brought to Scripps. I had the pleasure of bringing them
from New York, from various parts of the country: Albert
Stewart, the sculptor; Henry Lee McFee , a very distinguished
painter; Phil Dike, who I'd not only gone to school with but
who had been an associate in so many ways. When he gave up
the directorship of all color and, really, design at
Disney's, I brought him to Scripps. We had, over a period
of years, an incredible group of architects and painters:
James Chapin, the American painter, who was quite famous;
Richard Petterson in ceramics; Ted Criley in architecture;
Marian Stewart, who was Albert Stewart's wife, in weaving;
Whitney Smith in architecture; Sueo Serisawa, the painter.
These are all names I'm sure everyone is familiar with
around here. They were, at one time or another, members
of our staff, and our staff generally was around ten in
GOODWIN: It must have been the largest department in the
SHEETS: It was, really, because we were doing a tremendous
amount of graduate work, which was the most exciting thing.
particularly after the war. As every institution was
loaded with GI students, and as we had built a decent
reputation for the art, we did attract some absolutely
unbelievable talent from all over the country. The
graduate work had been built up really on the backs of
my original staff, who were never given any release time
to do graduate work. They did it in addition to their
undergraduate work for the same pay. But it developed
to the point where we did have several graduate appoint-
ments, like Jean Ames and others, who, in addition to the
names I've mentioned, were very important not only on the
undergraduate level but particularly on the graduate level.
It was an exciting group, and by this time we were serving
four colleges, because two more colleges [Claremont and
Harvey Mudd] had been added. It was quite right that it
should have been that size staff.
GOODWIN: How was the graduate program designed? What
were the features?
SHEETS: We deliberately moved away from art education,
teacher education, that is the preparation of teachers to
teach art. We felt that the universities were loaded with
that problem, and we weren't too happy with the way it was
being done. We decided to have a professional degree, a
master of fine arts, with a minimum of two years of
graduate work, with no assurance, of course, that two
years would get the students the degree, but to insure
proficiency in at least one or two areas. [phone rings;
tape recorder turned off] We believed that a teacher
should be a thorough craftsman and a well-trained artist,
both aesthetically, technically, and certainly with a
sense of the place an artist should serve in society.
It was that general spirit that prevailed. We were
extremely selective in looking at people's portfolios.
Even though they were college graduates, if they didn't
have the technical facility, we would recommend that they
go to an art school for a year or two before they came to
us. It worked out very well. In some instances we
accepted students that had not been to college. They
took a general cultural test which the college itself
put on, not the art department. In two or three instances,
some of the most distinguished people we turned out came
through that route. So we weren't sticky about the number
of units that they might have had behind them.
GOODWIN: How many graduate students were there at one
SHEETS: The number that seemed to prevail was around
forty-five, which was a large group for a small college
setup. We had quite a problem spacewise, even with all
of our buildings, to handle the two programs. But one of
the things that I think made it very good was that the
excitement of the graduate work that was going on was so
stimulating to the undergraduates as well as to the staff
that it made a tremendous difference in the undergraduate
work. It just moved up so fast, and there was a real
excitement through the whole place. You just felt you
couldn't believe it could happen, but it did. Our summer
sessions were very, very exciting. We did attract people
from all over the country. We never let it get so large
or out-of-hand, but we put it on almost like a humanities
concept. It was a six-week, intensive, full-time, all-day
course. Everyone in the summer session, regardless of
what medium they chose to work in, sometimes two for the
summer, went to an eight o'clock lecture.
GOODWIN: In the summer?
SHEETS: In the summer.
GOODWIN: Up and at 'em. [laughter]
SHEETS: Every one of the instructors — and there were
generally six instructors for the summer, professors of
various capacities (sometimes they were visiting artists) —
each professor was expected to give one week of lectures
in his field. Every student was required to take all of
the six lectures, five days a week. Then they had a
morning session of three hours, in one medium which they
chose, and all afternoon, three hours again in another
medium. Or they could stay straight through with one ;
it didn't matter. But the result is that that whole
group always felt like a unit. The people seemed to
respond so much to each other, and everybody was interested
in other people's growth, not merely the idea of going to
courses and getting units. It was a unified experience.
We did attract some marvelous teachers--college teachers,
top high school art teachers — from all over the country,
in addition to students who came then to continue on to
get their degree. So it was a good, interesting cross
section of excitement and activity in the country.
GOODWIN: Who have been some of the more prominent graduates
SHEETS: Well, I think of David Scott, now one of the
directors of the National Gallery, who was a very fine
painter, a marvelous young art historian. After he
finished at Scripps, he went to Harvard and received his
doctor's degree. Then he came back to Scripps and taught,
and then, when I left the Scripps department, he became
the head of the department. After that he went to the
Smithsonian Institution as an assistant director of
American art, and then became the director. Now he is
at the National Gallery in Washington. Douglas McClellan,
who is head of the art department at the University of
California at Santa Cruz, was one of the men that came
in on the cultural test side. He had not had college
background. He had gone to, I think, Colorado Springs
School of Art right after the war for a year, and then
he came, studied with me, and with our staff in general.
He was there on the GI Bill, which did not require that
he take this for a degree. We kept it open, I might say
very clearly, for people that had talent. We were as
interested in that as we were at the thought of a degree,
certainly. Then he chose to go after a degree and took
the cultural test, which they said was the highest test
ever passed by an outsider in any field, which pleased me
always. Then after David Scott retired as director, he
became director of the Scripps art department and then
went to Santa Cruz. Well, now those two have gone, you
might say, the formal route, but out of the innumerable
painters — I would have to get a list together, really —
but we have designers in architecture and ceramics and
weaving and tapestries and painting and sculpture,
GOODWIN: I think you mentioned there were some Rome
SHEETS: Yes, well that was an interesting story. We had
a young man by the name of Jack Zajac, of whom you may
have heard. Jack Zajac called me on the telephone one
morning, and he said, "I'm Jack Zajac," in this croaking
voice. I said, "Well, fine." He said, "I'm working in
the Fontana steel mills, and I'm sixteen. Somebody told
me that if I wanted to study art, I should call you, so
I'm calling you." So I said, "Well, Mr. Zajac, why don't
you come over, and let's talk about it." We made an
appointment. We had to make it on Saturday or Sunday.
because he was working. His father had been killed in an
accident, and he was taking care of his mother, at age
sixteen. He was about six feet tall, a great big gangling
kid, and he brought over to show me about fifteen enormous
canvases. I think the smallest was 3x4 feet, and from
then on up into various sizes. Some of them were attempted
copies of calendars. Some of them were the worst subjects
in the world, done without any real knowledge, but with
the most intense feeling. He didn't know what he had. He
didn't know how bad it was; he didn't know how good it was.
He hadn't the vaguest idea. But he was so excited about
painting. I suggested that he come over to the college
whenever he could. Was it possible to get on the grave-
yard shift or something and come over part of each day?
And he arranged that. He went on the graveyard shift.
He never knew it, but I paid his tuition, because I knew
he couldn't afford it. I didn't want to ask the college
at that time to do anything about it, and I could have
But he came over for about a year, and in one year
everyone knew we had a real artist on our hands. He just
bloomed. After one year of going to classes, which he
really didn't like — he was just a natural — we gave him a
room with one other student, and there he created all his
material that won him the Prix de Rome. But he was there
in the middle of our environment. The students were crazy
about him. I think we had freedom. We had some latitude
that very few departments would have in being able to do
this kind of thing, and do it with the college's full
knowledge and acceptance.
It was while he was in his third year there, working
very hard — and he worked unlimited hours. By this time he
had even stopped working in the steel mill and was selling
paintings, quite handily, enough to at least get by and
take care of his mother, which is a pretty remarkable thing
in itself at nineteen. I remember that Paul Manship, the
sculptor, then chairman of the [American] Academy in Rome,
came to visit Bert Stewart, and I showed him Jack's work.
He took one look at it and said, "I think he should apply
for the Prix de Rome." He did, and he won it. It was
just one of those nice little fluke things that happen.
He happened to visit at the right time and I don't think
any of us would have thought particularly of Jack applying
for the Rome scholarship. Well, he won it and, of course,
has had a great history ever since. He's done some
exciting things. I believe he's also teaching at Santa
Cruz at the present time, part time. He goes to Italy
each year and casts his bronzes.
GOODWIN: Did he actually study sculpture at Scripps?
SHEETS: Yes, he studied with Bert Stewart, as he studied
painting with me. But he was a complete person himself.
He was very thoughtful. He never fought a teacher. But
on the other hand, he didn't pay a hell of a lot of atten-
tion to the teacher. I've been very proud of the fact that
what he has was within himself. It's the quality of his
mind from the very beginning. He did learn the importance
of discipline, and he did work very hard. I used to go in
constantly when he was working in that room by himself and
at his invitation give him criticism just in the most casual
way. He was very thoughtful. I don't remember him ever
saying he agreed or that he disagreed, but he went right
on being Jack Zajac, which is what counted. He had that
capacity. But we've had so many people that are, I think,
equally distinguished in their own way. Of course, Roger
Kuntz , who died recently, was one of our students. I
should really prepare a list. I should have done that
to give you some sense of who these people were.
GOODWIN: Today we're more conscious of women in art or
even women artists. Were there many women graduate students
SHEETS: Yes, we had a very good percentage of women, as
a matter of fact. We had, I would say, just about an even
number of men and women — not by choice, but just by the
fact that we had some marvelous women artists: painters,
teachers, people who became very important teachers,
people who have gone into every design field, motion pic-
We taught architecture not as a formal course at
Scripps in the graduate school, but we had always good
architects who were very creative, who really made
architecture very much alive. Of course, I insisted that
painters and sculptors take architecture at least one year
to have some sense of the relationship between their work
and architecture for their future. I know that this was
a very important thing. I can't imagine an art department
without a required course in, not history of architecture--
we gave that in the humanities, of course; we had marvelous
presentations of architecture historically--but applied
courses, where they really became involved with using
materials and understanding concepts of form and the whole
idea of function. It's essential. It's a great discipline
just as a discipline. But the relationship between archi-
tecture and what an artist needs is enormous. I think
this is one of the great failings of so many art schools--
and many universities and colleges, too--that they just
don't push the necessity of understanding the relationship
of these fields as you practice art.
I think it's exciting to say that people like Tom Van
Sant was one of our students. Tom Van Sant went to Stanford
for three years and came down mainly because he was a very
good friend of mine, and his family and I had been connected
for a long time. He came down and took a year, which he
didn't even worry about as far as credit was concerned,
at Pomona College, and he took art full time. Pomona was
very decent to allow him to do this. So he worked extremely
hard that year , and he took sculpture . He worked in
painting with me. He took design, and he took architecture.
It was a great year. Then he went back to Stanford the next
year and graduated, got his regular BA degree, and then came
back to Otis, and he was one of the first two MFA students
we turned out at Otis Art Institute. But the fact that he
did get that start at Scripps with the undergraduate school,
with architecure, has affected his life. He now is involved
in everything that has to do with architecture. He's known
internationally, he's worked in every medium, but he's
emphasized sculpture more than painting, which is exciting.
I think if artists have a chance to work in a variety
of media when they're in school, whether it's an art school
or a college, and they get it right from the shoulder of
someone that really knows — not just teaching a bunch of
art theory — then they get in and really learn disciplines.
Very often a student grows in a totally different direction
than he thought he was going to go when he started out.
It's a fact that if a person says, "I'm going to be a
painter, and I don't want to do anything else," that often
clouds his whole future. Because if he just would get in
and learn the whole art language, it means not only more
freedom, but perhaps a whole new world opens up for him.
It certainly was in the case of Tommy Van Sant. I think
it's a case certainly in Zajac. He started out not wanting
to be anything but a painter. Though he does paint, he
certainly is known primarily as a sculptor.
GOODWIN: Was there a Scripps style?
SHEETS: I don't believe so. If there was a difference
between the students that we turned out and maybe the prep
students from other institutions, it was because we didn't
really turn out a style. We emphasized the importance of
them knowing how to express themselves, with also the
feeling that if this was developed during their formative
years, if they had something to say, they could say it.
We didn't try to turn out little Picassos, we didn't try
to turn out little Matisses. We didn't try to do any of
these things. We familiarized them thoroughly with every
facet of art, ancient and modern, abstract to represen-
tational. We certainly presented the case of all sides
with a degree of integrity and excitement. I think the
fact that we had a great variety of students — some working
much more toward the abstract or seraiabstract , others going
more toward the representational — was a thing that I really
liked about our department. It was not a single can job,
where they came out in one direction. I think that
aesthetically they were as well versed as any students at
the time. Other schools were primarily bragging about
the fact that they were giving kids such a high intensity
of aesthetic understanding, but I think you understand what
I mean. So many times out of our schools have come people
who have a certain limited taste, and they don't like any-
thing else. They're not interested in anything else.
Unless they have unusual capacity, it isn't easy for them
to become really successful within that narrow area.
An artist needs to soak up and get the kind of lan-
guage discipline that's only a prerequisite. It's not an
end; it's a means. Because the talent is not in the hand,
it's in the quality of mind. If they have that sense of
insight and they have the tools with which to express it,
they're going to be artists in their own right. If the
level of the quality of mind is average or below, that's
exactly where you're going to end up with in the artist.
The thing that was thrilling to me was that a student who
didn't ever really want to learn sculpture could get
inside and, with a fine person teaching him, not just do
academic realism but capture the real meaning of structure
and the real meaning of design.
TAPE NUMBER: III, SIDE TWO
DECEMBER 4, 1976
SHEETS: George, one of the things I believe meant a great
deal at Scripps was — and I take real pride in this because
the college believed in what I was trying to accomplish in
terms of preparing a different kind of an art student — I
was able to bring strictly professional people in as
teachers. I protected their time by putting all of their
teaching into three days, never allowing any other inter-
ruption, half -day or anything else. It meant very often
that I was interrupted in protecting them, but neverthe-
less, it was one of the best things that could have happened
because it allowed each one of these people to do many out-
side projects as well as their own creative work, without
interruption. I think that the nature of the work that
they brought in and the kind of commissions they were
receiving on the outside meant that our students had a
slightly different look at art. They were seeing not
only what was going on in the classroom and what the man
or woman believed in as far as the necessity of background,
but they saw the application outside. In many instances,
they served as assistants. Many of them, after they
graduated, went right into various studios and worked for
two or three years as assistants to these professional
people. In this sense, Scripps always had a touch and a
real feeling, a connection with the outside. I think our
students have reflected that. As they went out into their
own professional world, they didn't feel like they were
going into a foreign world. It was a world they under-
stood to a very high degree.
Then we always brought in, constantly, top people—
for sometimes a week, sometimes a day— to sit down and
discuss their work with the students. These were not
necessarily academic people. They were people who had
been through the mill but who we respected very much as
creative people and as fine artists and as very exciting
craftsmen. If you aren't willing to get the most exciting,
even totally different, opinion from the outside to walk
into your classroom, there's something wrong. We had a
staff that I can't believe, as I look back on it, having
been involved with other institutions, mainly on the boards
of directors. There was so much mutual respect. Though
we didn't all agree, and certainly we didn't work the same
way, we really had some common objectives that we stuck to.
There was never any unpleasantness. In all the years at
Scripps, there was just none.
GOODWIN: I wanted to ask you about that, because you seem
like a very positive thinker.
SHEETS: Well, I am, and I suppose that's true. But I
will also say that I did not try to impose my particular
kind of thinking on my staff. I was very careful in
selecting them to be sure that they understood what the
ground rules were. The ground rules were very clear as
I saw them. They had to be damn fine artists, they had
to know what they were doing, and they really had to have
the desire to teach everything that they could possibly
teach the student from the bottom of their hearts. This
was not a time-filling salary proposition. This was some-
thing that they had to have the desire to do, and I can
say that we had that kind of teacher. When we had our
monthly staff meetings, there was real camaraderie.
Socially, we had such a wonderful time together. We all
lived out in this small town, Claremont. Though we had
plenty of connection with the big city, we had a complete
life of our own, and it was great. Then bringing marvelous
people from outside constantly was really an exciting
relationship. We liked each other.
GOODWIN: Well, having been a graduate student for many
years, I know that there can be many unpleasantries in
an academic situation. Did you have problems, say, with
tenure or jealousies among faculty?
SHEETS: Minute ones, minute ones, but I think that those
minute problems that did develop were problems that in
the light of the overall mutual respect disappeared. Now,
tenure was never a serious problem in the art department.
The people that were given permanent tenure were people
who were so vital and so good for the college that they
weren't the kind that would fall back and sit on it. I
think of Albert Stewart, for example, a man who, like my-
self, had never had any formal education. He was educated
in England, where he was born. He had, I suppose, the
usual English schoolboy background, although he didn't
come from a family with a great deal of wealth. He cer-
tainly came from a family with some distinction. His
father was an actor. His mother died when he was young.
When he came to the United States, he was an amateur boxer
and wrestler, and he was very much interested in art. He
was probably eighteen when he arrived. Fortunately, he
fell into the hands of the man we mentioned, the sculptor
Paul Manship. He worked as an apprentice to Paul Manship
for a great many years, I imagine five years. Then he
became really an associate of Manship' s. He executed some
great, big, important commissions of his own, quite apart
from Manship, but he also worked with Manship on some
tremendous projects. He knew all of the good sculptors
in New York, and he was a remarkable person in his own
right. He came tc Scripps, and it was a totally different
experience. As a matter of fact, in settling a divorce
and being remarried, he was very glad to leave New York
and come to California on a very, very low salary scale.
It was in the Depression. I brought Bert here in 1939,
and I started to teach in '32, so he came very early.
Well, I think probably if I had to select one person
out of the entire staff that gave the most back to the
college, it would be Albert Stewart. He was a brilliant
lecturer, without any formal education or any formal
experience in lecturing, but because he cared so much,
felt so deeply about what he had to say, and with a
certain English reserve. He had a quality, a presence,
that was exciting and very moving. He was a marvelous
sculpture teacher because he made students, right off the
bat, carve stone, carve wood, as well as model, and draw,
draw, draw. We were all so compatible because we were all
saying the same thing to the student, in our own different
ways. I kept pounding drawing; I kept pounding design; I
kept pounding working with materials. So did Bert; so did
[Jean] Ames; so did McFee and Phil Dike. Everyone had the
same kind of emphasis, each in a different way. So the
students couldn't escape the necessity of doing work out-
side of class to prepare themselves for class— not by
merely reading, but by just hellish hard work. Well,
Bert I think probably was the best art lecturer we ever
had in humanities. He took on a major burden with delight,
which would have been a shock to believe when I knew him
in New York—to think that he would really become the kind
of powerhouse that he became. He had a great sense of
history. He had a great sense of the interrelation of
things. He was an extraordinary human being. I think
that it's the strength of a person like Bert and some of
the rest of us that kept us from having these small ques-
tions. Bert received tenure and eventually a very fine
salary. In fact, when I was in India during the war, he
was the acting head of the department. He was just a nice,
wonderful, strong person. We didn't really have many of
GOODWIN: Who would you say was the most innovative teacher?
That would be very difficult to say, but in terms of style,
who was reaching the farthest? In terms of what has sub-
sequently become popular and recognized?
SHEETS: I don't think that anyone reached out for that
deliberately. I think it was a matter of choice. No one
inhibited anyone's attempt in any direction he wanted to
go. But we felt, and I still feel — if anything more
strongly--that the reason we had successful students who
went on and became individuals and created their own
individual worlds and their own recognition was the fact
that they were better prepared in the basic skills, which,
I said, are only prerequisites. You don't get a gold medal
for knowing how to paint. Now, if you add to that the
importance of orientation in the world of art — call it
aesthetic knowledge, call it respect for the meaning of
art to life, call it anything you wish — if you can develop
this in a student, along with some skills, and you keep
them aware of the exciting, infinite potential of the
styles that are yet to be created, created in spite of
the fact that we've had an incredible several thousand years
of innovation, you don't really have to worry about being
innovative. An artist can only be what he's capable of.
It's impossible to hide inability. It's impossible to hide
ability. You don't have to worry about your own style.
Your own style is automatic because it's a result of who
you are and what you think. You may try very hard to be
like something else or to be innovative, a little different
than you think you are, but it doesn't work. It never has
worked, and it never will work. I've heard so much talk
about individuality in the old days of teaching. I don't
think you hear much about that anymore.
GOODWIN: Today it's called individual differences.
SHEETS: Yes, well, individual differences is what you and
I and every other human being were born with, and there's
not a thing we can do about it. I've tried to look better
than I am all my life. It's impossible. Absolutely impos-
sible. I've tried every route in the world to cover up my
ignorance. I've tried every way in the world to be more
something. You go out in the studio in the morning with
the greatest zest in the world to really knock out some-
thing that is going to be just really there, and you end
up by being you. I don't care how hard you try at it to
be different, you are different. You can't be otherwise,
because you're just you.
I'll always remember that one example of that critic
in Paris who reviewed an exhibition of twenty-five paintings
done by twenty-five different artists of portraits of the
same guy. Now, it would have been impossible for those
guys to try to be different. They were different. I've
always thought of it. It's probably something you've never
seen, because I think I must have seen that catalog thirty-
five years ago. It was terribly exciting to see what Matisse
did, to see what Picasso did, to see what Braque did, just
naming some of the headliners. Then you go on down into
Derain and a lot of the others. It was a very exciting
exhibition. Yet you knew, in every instance, that they
were portraits of that man. Now it's not only seeing
twenty-five different sides of a person, but it's accentu-
ating twenty-five different qualities of that person to a
degree that that became the style, whatever it was the
artist accentuated. Maybe it was the color, maybe it was
the basic lines of the structure, maybe it was the tonality.
It's exciting to me that you don't need to strive for this.
This just inevitably is.
GOODWIN: I'm not personally advocating a point of view
here, but could you characterize the art work of the
faculty by saying that it was traditional or conservative
SHEETS: I wouldn't say that it was conservative. I would
say that it was representative, yes, more representative
certainly than abstract, but I think that in every case —
the case of [Jean] Ames, Albert Stewart, Phil Dike, McFee ,
myself, on the painting, sculpture, and design side; then
in the case of David Scott and Doug McClellan--we were all
representational, but we were all tremendously concerned
with the basic design, the basic abstract arrangement:
colorwise, shapewise, movement, all the rest of it. It
was a case of not saying, "To hell with representation;
we only work in abstraction," but it was saying, "Any
great representational art from the history of time had
to be structurally sound from an abstract point of view.'"
So to sum it up, we were representational, but we certainly
were not traditional or eye-copying artists, and we cer-
tainly did not preach that. We did not teach people to
model, to draw casts, and then make a head. We taught
the structure behind everything. That's basically where
abstract art comes from. It's the sense of what lies
behind the surface. And we were that.
First of all, if you're talking about preparing artists,
the fact is that art schools were a new idea, oh, maybe a
100 years or 125 years old. It's a whole new idea. Until
that time, everybody was apprenticed. Nobody paid any
attention about what was abstract, what was representational.
A kid started in at nine or ten to, I suppose, clean brushes
and scrub pots and that kind of thing, and grew up in a
presence. They developed a state of mind, and they developed
a sense of what was important by listening and by having
their knuckles rapped, I suppose. They had to do the menial
things first. I don't think things have changed a bit. I
mean, I don't think the necessity of change is here. I
think the problem is that we've got a lot of people who
make a great deal out of mental masturbation. I think they
get too involved with the theories of art and the defense
of their state of mind or their special attitude towards
style. It just isn't necessary. I think artists should
be taught just like a pianist has to be taught.
SHEETS: The fundamental thing of the instrument. In music,
it doesn't happen like it happens in art. Sure, they talk
a lot about modern things — nuances and strange dissoanances.
I understand all of that, and I love all of that. But right
back to the point, you have to learn the instrument, and
there's no damn way of getting around it. No way. In
painting, I think it should be the same. I think it should
be the same in architecture. I think it should be the same
in every one of these different graphic or applied media.
You have the necessity to learn how to become free, free
to express you, your spirit, what you care about, what you
know, how you feel.
Now, to conglomerate a kid's head with all this stuff
that they throw at them from the time they get into junior
high school about style--and yet I think style should be
taught, but to say, "This is the way, and you mustn't learn
how to do anything objectively because you're going to be
inhibited," I think it's just nonsensical, and it doesn't
agree with the history of art. I've never seen an artist
in the world who was inhibited by knowledge. I look at
the drawings of the great masters, ancient or modern. I
recognize that the artist knows, has a tremendous authority.
Then I look at the work they do, and I see that where it is
not maybe a representational painting, this drawing is
extremely representational. The knowledge back of it is
there, hidden in the most subtle, most fantastic way.
I just am against what I think is generally being done,
I'm bitterly against it. I'm not partially against it, I'm
bitterly against it--not as a reactionary, not as a conser-
vative, not as somebody else. But if you know anything
about the history of art, it doesn't work this way. The
reason that we have a bunch of muddled kids coming out of
schools today and not knowing which way to turn and not
having enough opportunity is the fact they're not prepared
to face life. They're not prepared to become a part of
society. They're not prepared even technically to do a
good solid job, whether it be of illustrative nature or
doing murals or doing anything else. A doctorate degree
doesn't mean anything and a master of fine arts degree
doesn't mean anything if you just can't get up on a wall
and work. This is my problem of finding people today.
And we need more people than we can get today to help us
in the projects we're working on. I just go crazy trying
to find people, because this whole generation hasn't been
taught anything, basically. I'll stand on that in front
of God and the works, including all the universities that
are preaching this hogwash, as far as I'm concerned. And
a great many teachers are doing this.
GOODWIN: How did you divide your time at Scripps between
administrative duties and teaching?
SHEETS: I lived about three lives, because I not only had
administration and teaching but I had my own life, which I
refused to give up, as a painter and as a designer. All
during the Scripps years, I was working on very large
murals, I was working on buildings, I was working on indus-
trial design, doing illustrations for magazines, and doing
paintings for airlines. I must say I've been busy. Maybe
I didn't amount to anything, but I've been busy as hell.
You can't do that if you relax and say, "Well, I will teach
and, even after that, administer." I wanted to do both,
full time, which means that I literally haven't had what
the normal person has had in the way of a normal weekend.
I haven't had a normal life at all. It's been partially
unfair to my family, but it's been the life that I chose.
I stayed in education because I felt terribly excited about
it, and I felt that artists that were on the firing line
should be involved in education and not always leave it up
to the guy that's just theorizing about it or who just
plays with it like a little animal over here. I think an
artist should be capable of really conveying to others,
to helping others learn the things that they know will
make it easier for them to become personal, creative people.
So I certainly didn't do it for a living. I didn't do it
for any other reason than that I believed in it, although
out of it came so many wonderful things to me in the way
of associations and experiences that I never would have
had otherwise, like the ones with the Association of
American Colleges, where I lectured year after year. I
was released by my college to go to areas selected by the
Association of American Colleges for a period of anywhere
from three to six or eight weeks. I went into the South,
the Southeast, the Middle West, and the East on various
occasions, lecturing to as many as five or six different
colleges on each trip. Now, this was not an ordinary lec-
ture tour. It was a case where I was invited by the
Association of American Colleges to go to, for example,
Tulane University. In fact, at Tulane I gave two lectures,
one lecture was to half of the student body, and the second
lecture was to the other half. Most particularly, I did
try to convey what I felt was the place of art in life.
I wasn't there to give them some little technical lecture
on the history of some period but, really, my philosophy
of how I believed the arts are important ingredients in
everybody's life, and that if you learn to read these
languages, you gain the ability to enter worlds that are
otherwise unenterable. And that was all interesting. But
I met with the major professors, you might say the deans
of the whole school, to discuss the place of art in the
total university. I met with the art staff to discuss
what they were doing, and then I met with students in con-
ference. I was in each college for at least a week, and
every day was just loaded with activity, meeting with
people and working with them, formally and informally.
It was a great experience for me, too, because I saw how
differently things were run in different areas and how
some colleges seemed to be really moving into marvelous
areas of understanding and others seemed to be thwarted
by the very thing we're talking about here: stylistic
approaches without any realization of even the excitement
or meaning of art. I've known lots of people who know a
great deal about art but don't really like it. I don't
think this leads to anything important in art. It's got
to be consuming from the point that I don't think you can
become expressive if you're an artist if you don't have
freedom to express yourself — not just a freedom of style,
but a knowledge of how to absolutely state whatever it is
that you have in your mind.
GOODWIN: You were affiliated with the Association of
American Colleges for about ten years, 1938 to '48?
SHEETS: Let's see, yes, except for the interval of years
that I was gone to the war. That's true. It was about
GOODWIN: Who were some other people who served a similar
function, if there were others?
SHEETS: I'm sure there were others. I don't know. I
didn't know many people out here that were doing that.
I'm sure there were from the big universities, but I
wasn't aware enough of the staff to be able to say. I
used to meet occasionally people from eastern colleges
and universities. It was a big, major plan, and I'm sure
there were many. From Scripps, there were two of us who
did this fairly regularly. The other person was the poet
that I grew up with, the humorous poet at Scripps, Dick
[Richard] Armour. Dick Armour and I went to kindergarten
together. When we finished high school, he went East. He
went in the navy. I did other things. He taught in the
East somewhere near Washington, then came back to Scripps,
which was a great reunion for us. Dick did a great deal
GOODWIN: So it wasn't only in the arts?
SHEETS: No, Dick did it in literature.
GOODWIN: It sounds today like the traveling Phi Beta
Kappa lecturers, who have a base at one university but
visit several others as guests.
SHEETS: It's a good idea. I found it tremendously
stimulating to me. I was told that I was stimulating
to them, but I can't spedk for that, except that they seemed
to keep wanting me to do it. I remeniber that I used to
receive wonderful letters from the Association of American
Colleges about how they felt about my trips. But quite
apart from all that side of it, I gained so much in the
way of excitement, because I had to put into words so many
feelings that I wouldn't have done if I had just stayed
back there in the normal slot. In putting it into words,
it becomes something that you really in a way commit your-
self to, and I found it just tremendously stimulating. Of
course I met some of the most marvelous people.
I met Grant Wood when I went back to Iowa on one of
those trips, and it was a marvelous experience. I received
a letter from Grant Wood about a month before I went to
Iowa. They had a booming department then. They had a
marvelous graphics department, and Grant was teaching
painting. They had, oh, they had about thirty-five people
on the staff. It was a marvelous department. They did do
a lot of teacher preparation, too, but it was very alive.
Wasn't it [Mauricio] Lasansky, the guy there who was a
great etcher and graphic man? Of course he's made a pro-
found impact upon the whole graphic medium in the United
States, and there were two or three other people. I
received a letter from Grant Wood, whose work I had known,
but I had never met him. It was the most delightful letter.
I never read a more interesting letter. He said that he was
writing because he knew that I was coming to the university,
and he wanted me. If, after reading his letter, I could
stand living in his house, he wanted me to stay with him.
Then he described the most intimate details of the house,
the people in it--and there were about six or seven people,
including the housekeeper — and the dogs and the cats, the
whole works, and it was just so charming. Well, of course
I wrote back that I would be charmed, first to meet him and
secondly to have the privilege of being in his home. I was
met at the airport thirty miles away--you can't land where
the university is--by his man secretary, who told me that
Grant was in the hospital and had had a terrible cancer
operation when he wrote the letter and wasn't going to be
at home. But he hadn't wanted to say that because he
thought I might think it was an inconvenience and wouldn't
stay, but that we would be seeing him in the hospital.
Well, it was really one of the most charming experiences.
The house was unbelievably beautiful. It had the most
marvelous early American furniture. It was an exquisite
house. He gave me his room, as a matter of fact, and then
I saw him many, many times at the hospital while I was
there. Then later we became much closer friends, and he
visited us in California and lectured out at the colleges
and so forth. Those are just personal things, but there
were so many things like that that happened. I made per-
sonal friendships that have lasted the rest of my life.
from many people that I met on these tours.
GOODWIN: Were there some other colleges that you remember
as being particularly active and enthusiastic?
SHEETS: Oh, goodness, the University of Oklahoma surprised
the devil out of me. I was just amazed at how much was
going on there. It was very exciting. Southern Methodist
in Texas, and Texas A&M. Of course, I went to colleges in
the Middle West. I went to the University of Minnesota,
University of Illinois (I should get those together for
you and tell you exactly, because off of the top of my
head I wouldn't look very smart). University of Arizona,
University of New Mexico. I went to several Negro univer-
sities, and I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed those exper-
iences. I went to, I think, three, and I lived in each
case in the university for the full week or ten days and
met with students and staff, had my meals with them, and
was so excited about so many things about those univer-
sities that were quite different.
There was one in particular, Xavier, in New Orleans,
which was a Catholic black college. They did not have
dormitory facilities, and they put me up in a hotel down-
town. Well, the first man I met was a father. Father
Murphy, who was a professor of philosophy. He also was
an assistant to the bishop, the number-one assistant to
the bishop of New Orleans. He was also president of the
New Orleans Drama Society and Theater, and he had a small
Negro parish where he used to go out into the bayous every
Sunday to give mass. Well, my wife was traveling with me
on that trip, and we had more fun with Father Murphy. He
said that he wanted us to really see New Orleans, and he
really did let us see New Orleans, in addition to all the
exciting things that happened in the school. We saw the
theater from the inside, we went to the greatest places to
eat every night, and we talked till all hours. The man had
a kind of a universal mind, which was always very exciting
when you run into such people. But I went to his Shakespeare
classes, and I never had more excitement than to hear these
kids read Shakespeare, with these great eyes and the excite-
ment and the fire that they had. He was a great teacher,
of course, but the students themselves gave so much back.
I enjoyed the art classes. I was a little bit concerned in
their art that they didn't have the quality of teaching they
should have had, and they were a little inclined towards
edging them over towards making posters and things like
that. I felt that if they had better teachers, the art
department would have perhaps been stronger. But I thought
that the students themselves just naturally, instinctively,
had a great deal of talent that I thoroughly enjoyed.
I went to another Negro university outside of New
Orleans. I think it was a southern Methodist university
[Southern University] , with a religious background. There
I met some of the most exciting people I've ever met,
including one woman in particular. About a third of the
staff was white, about two-thirds was black, and this young
woman was one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen in
my life. She had bright red hair, a beautiful red-headed
girl, and she was one of the finest pianists I've ever
listened to. She was doing concerts all over the South,
as well as teaching music there, and I took it for granted
that she was white. I think it was the last night that we
were there I was talking with her at dinner about the fact
that I thought it was so wonderful that she was giving her
time to this kind of a university. She looked at me rather
puzzled and said, "Well, do you think I'm white?" And I
said, "I presumed you were." She said, "Well, I'm not.
My father is president of Tuskegee [Institute] . As a
matter of fact, he's very dark." But she said, "My mother
was French, and I've inherited all my mother's facial
characteristics and color." She said, "I'm half-Negro."
She was a charming person, but the whole experience there
was wonderful. It was great. I met with the athletic
department. I met with every department. Who was the guy
that won the big things in the '32 Olympics here?
GOODWIN: Jesse Owens?
SHEETS: Yeah, he was the coach. These were experiences
I'll just never forget. In fact, I'll not name the college,
but I went directly to Texas after I left this particular
university. I was at a dinner party — not at the president's
house, but there were several staff members present. I
waxed enthusiastic about the last college. They asked me
where I had been, and I started to tell them the different
colleges that I traveled to, and I said, "The last one was
probably one of the most exciting." Maybe I shouldn't put
this on this tape. One of the people said, "Well, where
is it?" I told him. They bristled. The entire table
bristled. Of course this was a long time ago. We're
talking about a totally different climate than today.
When I really laid it on the line that it was a Negro
college, one gentleman — or not gentleman — one man said,
"Well, I think you're a traitor to your race." I said,
"I'm sure you don't mean that." He said, "Well, I do mean
it, and I don't think you have any business to give your
talent and ability and so forth to such a situation." My
wife and I left the dinner table. But that was the only
unpleasant thing that ever happened on any of those trips.
That wouldn't happen, there's no way it could happen today,
but it was typical of the climate in those days.
GOODWIN: Why did you finally end your affiliation with
the Association of American Colleges?
SHEETS: I just became too busy. They continued to ask
me, but I reached a point where I had so much work that
I couldn't go. It wasn't just a matter of leaving the
college. I was leaving big murals and all sorts of other
things, plus preparing exhibitions, because I did keep my
painting going. Although it was difficult, very difficult
at times, I never let it get away from me. I would take
trips as often or as long as I could. It was really living
a triple life.
GOODWIN: There was one other item about Scripps I wanted
to discuss, so we'll backtrack a moment. That is the various
art works, murals and so on, that were commissioned for the
college and what role you might have played. I'm thinking
of the Alfred Ramos Martinez mural in particular.
SHEETS: Yes. Well, Martinez was a man that I loved so
deeply. As you know, he came to this country because of
his daughter, who needed a series of something like sixteen
operations. He left his beloved country. He had a passion
about Mexico that few people have about their own country,
but he had to live here his whole life because of this
daughter who was born quite late in his life. He had done
a few murals here and there, a beautiful one in Ventura and
one down in La Jolla, but there were only two or three. I
always thought that it would be marvelous to have him do a
garden at Scripps. Finally we worked it out, and I got the
money to have him do it. Tragically, he died in the middle
of that job from pneumonia, which was a result of the cold
he caught during the painting. So I've always had a very
double feeling about the thing. One is a great appreciation
of the fact thit we had him do it, and I'm happy to say that
they are preserving it now, for the first time properly.
Only part of it is in finished fresco. Part of it is tem-
pera underpainting as the guideline, and part of it was
just a few lines drawn on the concrete wall. [phone rings;
tape recorder turned off] He was such a wonderful little
man. He had so much vitality, and of course, he worked
completely from the heart. He had made, I'm sure, hundreds
and hundreds of drawings in Mexico in his early days, and
he had good training in France. But he would simply stand
back with a long bamboo pole with a piece of charcoal stuck
on the end of it. He had very feeble hands at that time of
his life, but he would hold the two hands together and he
would draw these beautiful images. He hardly ever changed
the line, standing back about ten feet. It was a marvel
to watch him, which goes back to what we were saying, this
thing of, "If you see it, if you understand it, then you
can state it," and he did it. But it's a beautiful garden,
and it's a lovely mural.
GOODWIN: Where did the funds come from?
SHEETS: The [Fine Arts] Foundation agreed to raise the
money, and it was raised very quickly. We all gave money
to it, and it was no problem at all.
GOODWIN: Of course, the Orozco mural was painted before.
SHEETS: The Orozco mural was painted two years before I
went to Scripps. It was painted at Pomona [College] .
It's an incredible painting. Have you ever seen it?
GOODWIN: Yeah, through the door. I've never stood in
front of it.
SHEETS: Through a crack in the door. Oh, what a shame.
Well, you'd be interested in the story, and I think it's
safe to tell it now. There was a professor by the name of
Pijuan [Jose Pijuan y Soteras] . He was an art historian,
who had written many books, and he was teaching art history
at Pomona at the time. When he saw this huge dining room
being built, he said, "I know the man who should decorate
it." Without discussing it with anyone, he went to Mexico
and promised Orozco that he could do this whole enormous
room and that he would raise the money for it. He came
back and told the college that he wanted him to paint
underneath that arch in the dining room. He said that
he would raise the money for it. Well, Orozco got up here
in good faith and painted it, and there never had been any
money raised. Pijuan had hever really gone out to do it
properly. He just had such a desire to have it done that
it didn't become realistic to him— I mean the actual pro-
cedure. So he prevailed upon the contractor who put up
all the plaster and all that end of it to give that, and
then he did talk a certain number of people out of enough
money to pay just a small pittance of what he agreed to
pay Orozco, but assured him that that was all right because
it would all come when he did the rest of the building and
so forth. Well, there was so much controversy about the
mural that the college president at that time said, "Well,
we're just not going to do any more." It was really a
ridiculous thing. In fact, I hate to even admit this,
but when I was at Scripps, after I had been there for
about two years, there was a strong, strong movement to
paint that mural out.
GOODWIN: Was it because of his political views?
SHEETS: No, not really. I don't think you could accuse
this of having any political meaning of Prometheus as a
symbol. It's not very political. Although Orozco was
doing huge things in Mexico, he never had been an avid
communist like some of the others, but he had strong social
feelings. I think it was because people just didn't under-
stand it. It was so powerful, and it was so unlike what
people were accustomed to.
TAPE NUMBER: IV, SIDE ONE
DECEMBER 4, 1976 and DECEMBER 10, 1976
GOODWIN: We were discussing the Orozco mural at Pomona
SHEETS: Yes. It's such a beautiful mural, and it has
attracted so much attention, but in the early days it was
something of a shock to people who had little or no back-
ground in the art of mural painting or even art. I remember
one evening it was my pleasure to introduce Walt Disney to
a very distinguished group of people who were gathered in
the dining room. It was in connection with an award that
he was given, and the room was filled with some of the most
interesting people in Southern California. Up on the plat-
form were several distinguished people and what not to make
the award. I was sitting next to the president of the
college. At dinner he turned--and he had to turn completely
around to look at the mural — and he said, "I don't know
when we're going to get that thing out of here." He was
a great friend of mine, but he certainly had a blind spot
in the field of art. I said, "Mr. President, I'm sorry to
have to say this to you but," I said, "long after you and
four college presidents are gone and forgotten, people will
be coming here to look at this Prometheus by Orozco." I
said, "They'll come from all over the world, because it's
one of the world's finest paintings of this period. I
think you should be very grateful, and I hope that you
really will not think seriously ever of any of these move-
ments that have taken place to remove this mural." I think
it came at the right time, and I think it did some good,
because I never heard anything more about that possibility.
But there had been threats up to that time of actually
painting out that mural .
GOODWIN: Is there any way to measure the impact that the
mural might have had on art students?
SHEETS: It had a great impact on art students, and I
presume it's had an impact upon the other students. It's
in the men's dining room, and some of the original com-
plaints I heard were, "Well, you can't face that bloody
thing every day." Well, of course the students didn't
face it every day. The tables were set at such an angle
that when the students sat down and faced each other across
the table, they were looking sideways, not toward the mural
I know that that was greatly scoffed at by the students
themselves, who said this is no bloody thing we face every
day— it's a dramatic thing. I think by the time the
student had been through four years of Pomona College,
they had a very different feeling about that mural than
they did when they went in. I'm sure that it meant some-
thing to them. Maybe they didn't understand it, maybe
they couldn't comprehend— even didn't give a damn about—
the meaning of the theme, but I'm sure that they came away
with the sense of an experience. I don't think there's
any question. And that certainly prompted the people to
sponsor the beautiful thing that [Rico] Lebrun did. Have
you seen that?
GOODWIN: Oh, yes.
SHEETS: Lebrun did a decoration which was a tremendously
exciting thing. Again, it's not the kind of thing that
the public quickly grasps and understands and perhaps
doesn't even like in some instances, but it's a great
thing to have those two murals there in that male dormi-
tory. I think the colleges are exceedingly proud today
that they're there.
GOODWIN: Were you in any way involved with getting the
SHEETS: No, I had nothing to do with it. I was so
thrilled when I heard that he was coming. In fact, he
called me one day and said that "I'm going to do a mural
up there." And I was just terribly excited. Unfortunately,
he did it at a time that I was away on a sabbatical. It's
a beautiful painting. I love it.
GOODWIN: What is your own orientation toward Mexican
painting of the twentieth century?
SHEETS: Well, I've always been more than excited, just
tremendously moved by it. I knew most of the painters.
I knew Rivera, I knew him slightly, and I knew Orozco
slightly. I've met [Rufino] Tamayo on a few occasions,
and I've known a great many of the sculptors. I think of
the incredible beauty of some of those early frescoes in
Mexico. I think particularly of Rivera's paintings in
the National [Ministry] of Education, which too few
people know about and too few people ever see when they
go to Mexico. They look at the late things that he did
in the great palace [Mexican Government Building] . They
are obviously very descriptive and exceedingly well painted,
but they haven't anything like the spirit and art that the
earlier things mean to me. They just aren't to be compared
with the earlier things. Now, the Palace of Education has
a series of — if I'm correct, I think there are four major
courtyards. You go through a main entrance to an area
where tourists would never go. In fact, I had a hard time
getting a cab to take me the last time I went there to show
my son these murals. You go into a series of four enormous
courtyards, and around all four walls of each courtyard are
paintings that are approximately twenty-two to twenty-three
feet high. The figures are very large--most of them are
ten, twelve, fourteen feet high — in color that you would
hardly believe a man could get out of fresco painting:
brilliant, exciting, wonderful color, robust and strong
and very powerful. Some of them are exceedingly strong
in their almost brutal commentary against in some instances
the church, in some instances the politicians, the govern-
ment. Here's another situation where these are incredibly
valuable yet they've been water-stained; they've not been
protected as they should have been. They're going to be
there, and they're magnificent even in the state that
they're in, but every time I see them I feel terrible
that someone in Mexico doesn't strongly move to see that
these things are better preserved. They're magnificent.
I think the ones that he did in the Cortez Palace in
Cuernavaca are a little quieter, a little more subtle,
but they're quite beautiful. They are of that same early
style. Later on, he became much more literal and less
imaginative, I think, or became so concerned with history
itself that it sort of outrode his sense of the design of
it. I think Mexico has had a great importance in art of
the twentieth century, a great importance because it came
from inside. It was not a cloak that they put on. I like
so many of their graphics, and they have sculptors who are
really superior sculptors in the sense that they're not
just involved in little aesthetic, ticklish things.
They're doing things that they really care about.
GOODWIN: Are there parallels between your work and the
Mexican muralists, for example?
SHEETS: I wouldn't say so. I think that if I had a cause
that was as strong as they had in the revolution, I think
it might have improved my work. I think that the absolute
dedication that they must have had in a very critical part
of the war was not unlike the ancient days of Greece, when
the artists were involved with the actual fights in the
wars themselves. These people were very involved. I
persuaded Siqueiros on his first trip to California to
teach a fresco class.
SHEETS: In Los Angeles at Chouinard. Then he did the
thing, down at the old Mexican plaza [Olvera Street],
which was painted out. He did a very beautiful painting
at Chouinard, which unfortunately just deteriorated be-
cause he tried for the first time the air brush. The air
brush gave a marvelous quality--it was a stunning mural —
but it didn't work in fresco painting. It did not pene-
trate; it was too wet. Whereas in real fresco, when you
pull a brush across a dry plaster--not dry in the sense
that it's dried out, but not a wet plaster — there's an
actual sucking sound that you can hear as paint goes
right into the plaster. It penetrates to a degree. But
when he shot this on with an air brush, he got some very
exciting effects, very strong. They were very character-
istic of the kind of form he liked, because he used an
air brush on a lot of his easel paintings. It didn't
last. The water and time and rain and sun just slowly
ate it away, and it finally just disintegrated so much
that they took it off — not because it was anti-anything ,
it was just because it deteriorated. None of us knew
what he was going to do. It was like the one he painted
down in the plaza. He had all of his side people coming
in toward the center, and it wasn't until he got to the
very end that he had this ant i -American central theme.
He was a little bit the same way with the workmen in the
mural at Chouinard. He had all the workmen that just
looked like guys working on scaffolds and doing a good
job, until we finally all discovered that they were
listening to this rabble-rouser. It was characteristic,
but he was a very powerful man.
GOODWIN: I'm wondering whether Mexican art or art of
Central and South America has had a very pervasive impact
on California art, considering the proximity of California
SHEETS: I'm afraid not, to the degree that perhaps it
would have been better. I'm sure that an artist like Ben
Shahn was profoundly affected by Mexican art. I'm sure
of that, not ever having heard him say so. But I think
that Ben Shahn was a tremendously creative artist in his
own right. I think the work of the Mexican artists prob-
ably were a greater influence than any other single group
of artists might of been, if he had an influence. His
dedication to social problems and to mankind were pro-
found. We [Scott Foundation] just bought a fantastic Ben
Shahn for this collection. I think it's one of the most
beautiful Ben Shahns I've ever seen. It's a painting of
three men, a large painting about forty inches high. For
him, it's a large painting. It's called Anger . Instead
of it being three guys just clenching fists at each other,
just in the subtle series of lines in their faces and one
hand you get a very powerful impression, which is so like
so many of the early Tamayos and so much like some of the
early drawings of Rivera and Orozco, that I think there is
a relationship. But I think California, unfortunately,
hasn't felt that.
GOODWIN: In a way California — or Southern California in
particular — seems somewhat impervious to that kind of
foreign influence. It would seem that it might be more
natural that it occurred, and in fact it doesn't appear
to have occurred.
SHEETS: No, I don't think it has occurred, I really
don't. Southern California is a strange place, because
when I grew up here there were so few artists, relatively
speaking, and then suddenly--by suddenly, I guess I should
restrict that and say mainly after the war--we have simply
had the world flow in on top. There haven't been too many
artists here that have much of a California root system.
They've brought a lot of very exciting ability and talent
and feeling from other places, but I wouldn't say that
there's been much indigenous sense of things here at all.
When I grew up, there was a California eucalyptus school,
which had a very pleasant kind of competence, but it had
nothing to do with the social order or with humanity par-
ticularly. It had lovely pink lights on the hills in the
afternoon, and eucalyptus trees were very fluffy and
willowy and beautiful. A few people painted the sea,
and they did just little California landscapes. I grew
up in that atmosphere, and it really wasn't until much
later that people like Lebrun and others came in and had
a force that added something quite different to what was
here. Of course, now it's as universal as can be. It
could be Paris or New York or anyplace else. There's
not much of a special indigenous quality.
GOODWIN: There's nothing typically Calif ornian today.
SHEETS: I don't think so now. I don't think there are
many artists who are even painting the country particu-
larly. Maybe I'm one of the few that sticks with it,
because I still love it. It's my place where I grew up.
I hope I'm not doing just pink, fluffy eucalyptus trees,
but I'm doing the things that I like. Of course, I love
Mexico so passionately that I go down there a great deal
to paint, and Mexican painting isn't the kind that you
travel with. It's what you do where you are.
GOODWIN: Were there any other large commissions by out-
side artists at the Claremont Colleges that we've
SHEETS: Not by outside artists, no. In fact, I think
the only other mural at Claremont is the one that I did
on the theater. I designed the theater, and I gave a
huge mosaic, three episodes of Shakespeare.
GOODWIN: Oh, yes, the Garrison Theatre.
SHEETS: The Garrison Theatre, I designed the theater, and
I gave that. I think that's the only other mural there in
GOODWIN: You built a home in Claremont?
SHEETS: I built two homes in Claremont.
GOODWIN: Well, we've mentioned your first home.
SHEETS: The second one was up at Padua Hills, which is
three miles north of the town and the colleges. It was a
beautiful area up there in the toe of the foothills, and
I built our home there. First I built a stable, and then
I built a house, then I built a studio. That was a great
experience. I built a rammed-earth house. When I was
designing air schools for the air force, we were running
out of materials everywhere in the early part of the war.
I had done a lot of reading about rammed earth, so I tried
to persuade the army engineers to let me build some rammed-
earth houses. I had concepts of prefabricated forms which
could be put up if the soil was right and had the right
amount of clay and sand and so forth. We could eliminate
wood and mortar and everything else and build these rammed-
earth houses or buildings. Well, they were very, very
reticent about it, so I decided to build one to prove it
could be done. I built a very large house, as a matter
of fact, with walls eighteen feet high, and thick, beautiful,
big walls, and very gutsy fenestration. After I had it all
up, the [Los Angeles] County and building department was
so concerned for fear it might fall down in an earthquake —
which I'm sure it wouldn't have — they practically said I
had to take it down. Well, I assured them that that was
out of the question, and I solved the problem very simply
by putting reinforcing steel on the outside, inside and
out, and Guniting the wall with an inch and a half of
Gunite, which would have meant that if it didn't have any
dirt in it it would have been a fortress. They were very
happy. As a matter of fact, at the time, it didn't cost
much more than plastering. But it was an experience be-
cause it shows the bureaucratic mind, how hard it is for
them to adjust to any new ideas. We later proved that
from the point of view of an earthquake, it had tremendous
strength. It had the ability to roll more easily than a
mortar building, and it was designed with enough solidity
that it would take care of the seismic thrust, I'm sure,
without any question. But anyway, it made a beautiful
house. It was half-indoors and half-outdoors and had
nice gardens. It was a great wrench when we left that
area, because we loved it very much. It had a nice stable,
a training track, because I raised show horses at that time
and used to train them there and take them to the shows.
Then later I converted that stable — which was also a mural
studio, a combination of stable and mural studio — I con-
verted it into a house for some friends of ours. It's a
beautiful house up there today. [tape recorder turned
DECEMBER 10, 1976
GOODWIN: Last session we discussed the Scripps College
years, and we concluded with some remarks about Mexican
mural painting. We finally ended with mention of the
second home that Mr. Sheets built in the Claremont area.
This session we're going to discuss the World War II years,
and we're going to begin with the building of schools for
the air force.
SHEETS: Fine, George. I think it was the latter part of
1939, a friend of mine, whom I had met socially— Ma jor
[Corliss C] Moseley, a man eminently known here in avia-
tion circles— ran most of the repair work and teaching of
flying and whatnot, plus many other interests in aviation,
at the old Glendale Airport. He called me and asked me if
I knew an honorable contractor in the city of Claremont or
that area. He said he had the responsibility of having an
air school built almost overnight, that he had been given
a contract by the U.S. Army Air Force to hire instructors
and ground-school teachers and build a complete school,
hangars and ground school, for 900 people. He said it
had to be done in a matter of three months, and he asked
if I knew an honest contractor. I said, "I certainly do.
By good fortune I can tell you not only a very competent
man, but a man of great integrity who is associated with
the colleges. He's a trustee of the colleges, and he's a
neighbor of mine, and I've worked with him over a period
of years." He said, "Well, could you make a date with him
for this afternoon? I need to come out. We have to build
this school immediately." I made the date and they met.
After the meeting, the contractor, whose name was Clarence
Stover, called me and said, "Millard, I appreciate so much
meeting Major Moseley, and I love his enthusiasm, but all
he had on the back of an envelope was an idea of how many
buildings the school ought to have. There were no plans,
no drawings, no conception of the scale, or anything. I
had to tell him that I'd love to build it, but I couldn't
build it from the back of that envelope." In those days
even the construction of that first school was well over
a million dollars, which would be like, probably, ten or
twelve million today, to give you some idea of the scope
of the project. Major Moseley called me that night later
and said that he was distressed with the fact that nobody
could build this thing from his envelope, and he said,
"You've got to help me. Will you put this thing together
So without wanting to be involved, I suddenly found
myself involved in designing a major air school. Though
I'd been designing buildings for a long time and I had
done many fairly large projects, I hadn't had a project
before where you had to have guys flying in thirty days
from a dead, still start. Normally you'd spend three to
four to five months on the plans and then build it in six
or eight months. So I just literally, practically slept
with Major Moseley for about a week and did get all of
the information, during which time I was having the site
surveyed and the elevations worked out and so forth. I
literally designed that school while it was being built.
I laid out a master plan from the layout of the buildings
and quickly ascertained the size and that kind of thing
and gradually put it together. We were really designing
the last of the classroom buildings and the dining rooms
and the kitchens and that sort of thing last while they
were building the dormitories and the hangars and the
control towers, and getting the whole plot covered with
pavement so they could land airplanes on it. Well, it
was a very peculiar happenstance because this field was
the first field out of some seventeen schools finally
that were given to private contractors to build in order
that the program could be speeded up. Up to that time,
they had produced approximately sixty pilots a year for
the air force.
GOODWIN: That's all?
SHEETS: That's all. They of course were mostly men who
had finished West Point and had come through the regular
system of the army and then gone to the air force. Their
estimated aim was 90,000 pilots, including flying
engineers — that is, navigators — not to count gunners,
mechanics, and all the rest of the people who could be
involved. Bombardiers came later. The army air force
knew that it was impossible to put this load on the U.S.
Army Engineers, which of course had been the organization
which had always built schools, partly because it would
take at least a year for them to go through the routine
of planning. In addition to that, they were planning
every other facet of development for what appeared to
be an inevitable war. Also, if they used everybody in
the entire air force, they couldn't have even had enough
instructors, let alone people to administer and run the
operation. So for two reasons they went to private con-
tractors, who, on the strength of their contract with the
U.S. Army Air Force, could finance and build the schools,
buy the land or lease it, and hire the personnel. Then,
once the schools were completed, the government bought
the schools and owned and operated them. The private
contractors did handle all of the flying on an hourly
basis, and in those days they made a great deal of money
out of the project because the taxes weren't the same as
they are now. Well, that's just for background.
Now the big problem was that there were so many
contractors being interviewed and they were searching
so desperately for air space. Air space is a peculiar
thing when you recognize that they wanted all schools
beneath 2,500 feet of altitude. When you think that each
school needed a radius of a minimum of twenty-five to
fifty miles of air space, you couldn't put them right
next to each other for teaching beginning flyers. Weather
had to be reasonable. In the beginning, they wanted areas
that were connected to towns where they could get utilities,
water and power and roads. So this school happened to be
the first one that met the deadline. We literally were
flying in ninety-four days from the time that they asked
me to design this school. The contractor was superb. He
really did a job that's hard to believe. As I designed
more and more of the schools, I tried to make the buildings
as interesting as I could on a low budget. I created
decorative qualities, which I believed in, as part of the
function, instead of the typical army barracks, so lacking
GOODWIN: What did you include?
SHEETS: Well, I painted murals in the dining rooms. It
was just fun — I gave those. Toward the end of each job,
I would be so excited about them that I wanted to add my
own feeling to the place. So I'd go in and paint murals
in the dining rooms and try to fit them into the locale
where they were. I even designed furniture, because we
couldn't buy furniture fast enough. The furniture market
didn't provide the heavy stock that we needed to stand the
pressure of all these young men. They were pretty rugged
young guys. So I designed chairs and beds and chests of
drawers and tables for the dining rooms. So I had them
out here in Los Angeles. It became an overnight business,
which I had nothing to do with. I had these people contract
directly with the various contractors for the schools. But
it was a very exciting experience to put it all together--
landscaping, the whole works.
By coincidence, the man who was the head of the air
force. Hap [Henry H.] Arnold, was a great friend of
Major Moseley. To celebrate the fact that this was the
first school finished, he flew out from Washington to
celebrate the opening. He fell in love with the school,
went back to Washington, and told his staff that the one
fellow who knew how to design air schools was that guy out
in California, [laughter] which really was a ridiculous
thing because I had to put a staff together overnight.
I had engineers working, along with draftsmen, while I
was flying back and forth to Washington for discussions.
I designed practically every school that I did, not on
the back of envelopes but in proper pads, flying back
and forth. It used to take twenty-three hours to Washington
by a DC-3 , with something like eleven stops each way.
GOODWIN: What was the full name of the first school?
SHEETS: The first school was called Cal-Aero, and it was
quite famous because it was the first. About the time
that I thought we' were all cleaned up, these contractors
began to arrive from all over the United States saying,
"Here, we've got a site in Arizona and Texas and Ohio."
It ended up that in a period of about three years, I did
seventeen major schools. I had a lot of interesting
experience, you know, working with totally different
kinds of contractors. By contractors, I'm not speaking
of the building contractors, because Stover built, I
think, something like fourteen out of my seventeen schools.
He was so proficient, and he moved so readily from one big
area to another. He had built up a staff that was really
competent to do these things. But it was a great experience
for me to meet these kinds of business people, industrial
people. I met everybody from big industrial people who
were given a contract to motion picture people, like
Leland Hayward and a whole group of Hollywood stars who
built Thunderbird I and Thunderbird II [flying schools] .
They were all flyers, incidentally. ^That's why they be-
came interested in this thing. That touched me for the
rest of my life, because I moved into different areas,
through those connections, that I never would have moved
into before or probably ever. There was the excitement
of moving more and more out into space, where there were
no utilities, where there was nothing even within twenty-
five to fifty miles in the way of a town, where we had to
drill our own wells and build generators and the whole
thing. It was a wild experience, but very, very exciting.
It was during this time that I met so many of the men
who later I was ro meet firsthand in the war, not only some
of the top young captains and majors who were running the
schools, who then went on into combat, but many of the
students who went through these schools and who 1 later
flew with on bombing missions and got to know, who rose
very rapidly in the ranks. When you have an enormous
extension of a program like the army air force did, some
of those early lieutenants became brigadier generals
before the end of the war.
GOODWIN: Were you anticipating that when the war started
you would be in the military?
SHEETS: No. 1 was married, and I had four children by
the end of the air school program. It didn't occur to me
that I would necessarily be in the fighting end of it, but
I was very sure that I would be involved somewhere where I
might be some help or at least feel that I was contributing
something to the war effort. Because I don't think you can
get as involved as I was with the onrush of the thing, the
tremendous surge of getting that job done, and then just
sit back quietly and teach in the college. It just some-
how didn't work.
But the one thing that was most exciting about it to
me was that Am.ericans had the capacity to do this. This
was an extraordinary thing , because before I left the
projects, there were 90,000 boys a year being trained.
They hit the mark they set, and though some of those
schools went on for like two and a half years after we
finished them, they really were successful and exciting
projects. The know-how just seemed to come up out of the
ground. You wondered where they could get that many flight
instructors, where they could get that many ground instruc-
tors. Of course, the colleges did turn out and had the
people within the college area who could do these compli-
cated things that were involved on the ground school.
That was the high level that was demanded of these people.
Of course, everything in the fields of mathematics — oh, I
can't even begin to go into how complicated it was. But
it was a good background for me, and I learned to fly — not
with any license, but I did a lot of flying. Among other
things, I had to barnstorm all around looking for areas
after a while, and I had learned to know every demand that
was needed in terms of the peculiar necessities and had to
be able to analyze whether we could do some of the things
that had to be done .
GOODWIN: Were there some other schools built in California?
SHEETS: Yes, I built one in Tulare, one in Visalia, one
in King City, one in Dos Palos, one in Oxnard . There were
one or two more. Just off the top of my head I can't
remember, but there were that many in California, and we
had three or four in Arizona, the Thunderbird schools and
the Falcon school, which was where we trained British
pilots. We trained about 50,000 British pilots at Falcon
Field over a period of about three years. It was designed
for the British--not that it was any different, but they
sent the boys over here. We did train about that many
fliers and engineers. Then there were several in Texas:
Corsicana and Fort Stockton and Uvalde. I can't remember
all the places in Texas. There was one in Ohio. It came
to a total of seventeen.
GOODWIN: Did you employ any artists to help you with
SHEETS: Yes, after we were really moving, I did employ
quite a few artists who were colleagues of mine to do
various decorations. We tried to get good reproductions
of good paintings, in addition to doing some things right
on the wall, to make the place habitable. In fact, it
became kind of a joke. The army air force referred to
our schools as the country clubs of the air.
As a matter of fact, there was an investigation after
the war, quite a long time after the war, as to why I had
done so many schools, and why this contractor had done so
many schools. I guess it was the period when they were
trying to prove collusion or something. I remember how
angry I was. The FBI arrived in Claremont and tied up my
bank account and went all over town trying to find out if
I had any reputation or not, because they couldn't figure
out why anyone had done so many. Well, it turned out that
they couldn't find anything wrong, and I was pretty upset
when they finally came to tell me in my office at the col-
lege that they hadn't found anything wrong and that they
were leaving. I said, "In other words, this investigation
is closed." And this insolent son of a bitch turned to me
and he said, "The FBI never closes a case." Well, I said,
"I've got news for you. Unless you have some kind of a
warrant, don't you ever come into ray office again, because
whether you're the FBI or God almighty, I'll just knock the
bejesus out of you." I was so angry. They had been in
that town, and they had gone through it with a fine-tooth
comb. They had combed the air force in and out. The
funniest part of it was, and what really dissipated the
examination was, that our schools cost about 40 percent
per man housed and fed and taught to fly what the regular
army air force schools cost, and they were living in rudi-
mentary huts. But we did it because we just jumped in.
In fact, it shocked the hell out of them when they found
out that the years that I designed those schools I made
roughly 7 0 percent of my income from what I normally make,
because I gave up everything to do this, and I was doing
it on an extremely limited budget. I did have an expense
account, which meant flying and that kind of thing, but
there was no expense account for luxuries. There weren't
any luxuries to begin with. But anyway, it dissipated,
and that was that.
It was really interesting to meet after that, in all
parts of the world, even twenty years after the war, men
who had been young officers, very young, or even cadets,
in high places in Turkey and other countries. It's just
really been an astounding, fun thing to see what happens
with those people.
Well, then almost at the exact ending of that whole
project, the war, of course, was well under way. Pearl
Harbor had been, I think, a year before we finished the
final building. One last point on that: I felt that
toward the end of our project that we should try rammed-
earth because we had completely run out of wood — there
was very little in the way of material; everything was so
short that you couldn't believe it. Skilled labor was
practically nonexistent at this point. They'd gone into
various army projects, and many of them had gone overseas--
carpenters and whatnot had gone overseas — to do that kind
of work. I had done a great deal of research on rammed-
earth houses all over the world, some of them being 1,000
years old and that kind of thing, as well as the huts that
were built in the Dakotas in the plains in our own country
in the early days. I figured out that if we could get
equipment set up, we could build these dormitories and
major buildings with rammed earth. It's an old, old
process. It isn't like adobe. We didn't have time to
make adobe. But with rammed earth, if you have the right
soil conditions, you can, by putting about the maximum of
4 percent moisture content, put it into forms in layers
of four to six inches as it's dumped in, and then by com-
pressing it with a tamping machine, you can make it as hard
as concrete. You can't drive a nail into it. I figured
this would be the greatest solution. We could build pre-
fabricated forms that could be moved along. We could
compact the dirt up into windows after it had been saturated
with the right amount of water and let it settle under can-
vas for a few days. The engineers in Washington were slightly
encouraging in the beginning, but they were so busy, and
they were afraid of anything that they hadn't heard of,
and most of those fellows never read a book about such
things. So I ended up by building my house at Padua in
rammed earth to prove it could be done. I think I told
you about that. Then the county became frightened, and we
had to Gunite it. But it would have been a very practical
thing, and out in these desert areas the soil conditions
were generally pretty good for it. But it was all exciting.
About the time that that project ended, I was asked by
the War Department to become a war artist. I was called
back to Washington. A project had been set up by George
Biddle, who was one of the Philadelphia Biddies, a very
good painter in his own right — and a man that I had met
on some occasion, probably on a jury meeting or something
in the East. He had put my name as one of some twenty
names that were first submitted to the War Department.
After we were approved, we were all called to Washington
to be told what the projects were to be like. We were
told that with the various theaters of war, the South
Pacific and Africa and England and so forth, that we could
virtually select our own field, our own theater of war. We
would be rated as lieutenant colonel and given the same
privileges as an officer, but we would simply be involved
with every facet of the fighting and everything that lies
behind it. We would paint as an artist, not merely as
illustrators, but whatever interpretation an artist would
give to the whole problem, the whole tragedy and phenomenon
GOODWIN: What was the motivation for having war artists?
SHEETS: Well, it's something that has been done by many
countries for centuries, actually, and I think the point
that Biddle made was that an artist would be able to
interpret, as no other person could interpret, many as-
pects of the war. Of course, they had photographers that
were doing a tremendous job in documentation, but Biddle
was able to convince the War Department that artists were
capable of a deeper type of interpretation and would be
involved in more basic values and less concerned with what
the eye sees and more of what really goes on. There seemed
to be a great enthusiasm for this on the part of the War
We went through the business of being properly indoc-
trinated into our jobs, and we were told, of course, of
the tremendous responsibilities and secrecy and a lot of
other things, uniformed properly, and were waiting to be
sent abroad. I was in New York waiting in the middle of
a sweltering summer, and I read the paper early one morning
where Mr. Biddle had written an article. He was the first
one who went out into the field. He went to Italy at the
time of the first landing in Italy. He had written an
article about how fantastic it was for an artist to be
there in the middle of the war and to see the fighting
and to see the flowers and to see a lot of other things.
He waxed entirely too romantic about it because he wasn't
that kind of a person, and it's strange that he would write
what he did. But it was such a bad statement that the
Congress immediately, within two days, killed the whole
project. It just absolutely said that if that's the kind
of thing that we're paying for, there isn't going to be
any of it. It was a terrible shock to Biddle and to
people in the War Department who really wanted this
TAPE NUMBER: IV, SIDE TWO
DECEMBER 10, 1976
SHEETS: I was in New York with four or five other artists-
some of them were going to England and various places — when
this complete stoppage of the program occurred. I was
called by Washington immediately and informed, though the
project had been stopped, to not leave New York because
the government was making arrangements with Life magazine
to take over the entire project, exactly as it had been
outlined by the government in the War Department. Within
a matter of, I think, hours, twelve hours or something
like that, I got a call from Dan Longwell, who was then
the editor of Life. Longwell was a fantastic man, a great
man. He had great imagination, lots of fire, and tremen-
dous flair for doing things. He called me, and I went over
to Life magazine with the other men, and we were given a
very exciting outline of what they had in mind. We were
tied down again as to where we would like to go. Every-
body seemed shocked when I said India-China-Burma, because
I had always wanted to go to China. All my life, as a
child, it meant so much to me for reasons that I can't
even entirely explain. He was delighted, and after two
or three days my orders were changed, and I was shipped
back to California to eventually leave by Liberty ship
from California to India.
GOODWIN: But you were still in the military?
SHEETS: Well, we became certified correspondents, which
meant that you are and you're not. You're not actually
part of the military force, but you're subject to all of
their rules, regulations, and orders. Orders take time
to be cut, and you simply have to follow the same orders
exactly. But you're given the rating, as I said, of
lieutenant colonel, which means that you have a certain
amount of freedom, but at the same time it's in direct
relationship to everything that the War Department or
the army was planning.
I came back to California, and it was very interesting
because the only means you had of getting to India from
California was by Liberty ship. These Liberty ships were
being built up and down the state and into Washington—
and I guess in Oregon, but certainly Washington. They
were built in twenty-nine days, they were loaded in four-
teen, and you took off. The shakedown cruise in our case
consisted of going outside San Pedro harbor and going down
to about Newport and back to Los Angeles harbor in three
round trips to figure out how far off the compass was.
The compass was certainly not correct, but they made the
notations of what the inaccuracy was. I think we left at
eight or nine in the morning, and by about five o'clock
that afternoon in the middle of June, we headed right off
the west end of Catalina on our way to the South Pacific
and then to India.
Well, the captain was a fantastic man, [William] Crum.
He was a captain in the navy for many years, and then he'd
become a merchant marine and worked for Luckenbach Lines
until he was taken back by the navy to be put in charge of
a merchant vessel. Tragically, he had had two ships tor-
pedoed out from under him already during the war, and he
was like a man walking on eggs. He was a very gutsy guy,
but he was extremely emotional and very high-strung, as
were most of the crew members. There were four men on
that crew that had had three ships shot out from under
them. One man in particular, the ship's carpenter, had
been in an open lifeboat for twenty-nine days, and every-
one else in the lifeboat died. That was really such a
shocking experience to me--to meet these men and to even-
tually get the stories out of them and to know what the
war had really meant to them, to these people. We had
been sitting here in a comfortable situation and didn't
really have any sense at all what war was, and that was
my first introduction.
We took off, as I said, just without any shakedown
cruise, really, and headed southwest. It was very amusing;
we had a three-inch gun on the poop deck, but the Japanese
submarines at that time had six-inch deck guns. They
could have stood off out of our range and blown us right
out of the sea. We were all alone, without convoy, and
the gunners were on the poop deck day after day. They'd
throw boxes overboard, and then they would try to hit
them. Well, they never hit a box. I was completely
super cargo, along with six submarine officers who were
being sent down to Tasmania to go over to Australia proper
to join some submarine replacements. Having nothing to do,
it intrigued me to make kites, like I did when I was a boy.
We had plenty of line on board, and I made a kite about ten
feet high that I put out about, I think, maybe three-
eighths of a mile behind the ship. That kite was up for
like six days straight, and it never had a bullet hole in
it, though they shot at it continuously. These were the
early days, before we got anywhere near the so-called war
zone. It was just amusing to fly that kite. Once in a
while we'd bring it in and take a look at it, and not a
shrapnel, nothing had gone through it. They were a won-
derful bunch of kids, but just as green as the rest of
us. The guys in the gun tubs had these little machine
guns which would have done very little damage except to
somebody in an open boat.
I had to stand watch, the same as everyone else:
four hours on and four hours off, right around the clock.
It was interesting, and you learn an awful lot about what
your eyes will do when you go up on a deck after you've
been in a cabin. The people to be relieved don't leave
for thirty minutes. After that thirty minutes, on the
blackest night, when you think there's absolutely nothing
to see, you can see the horizon. Your eyes adjust to that
so well, and it was an amazing experience going through
that whole Pacific to be on that deck because the nights
were incredibly beautiful at first, and there was phosphor
in the water. You could even see the fish with the phos-
phorescence on them, and it was a wonderful experience in
that early part.
Then things began to get tense, more tense, because
the Japanese were knocking these Liberty ships down ahead
of us and behind us even pretty regularly. We'd get sig-
nals, and we were all alone. Doing a little zigzagging
didn't mean a hell of a lot, but we were zigzagging. They
planned a course through so many hundreds of South Pacific
islands that I wouldn't know how to count them. They told
us there were several hundred, but we only saw one island,
and that was the tip top of Moorea at dawn. The ship's
first mate told me the night before if I'd get up at four
o'clock, there would be a few minutes only that we'd see
it over the horizon. The reason that we'd see it was that
we couldn't get far enough away to not see that without
being very close to an atoll, and the Japanese were
infesting that area with observers.
So, as I said, things were getting more tense and
more tense, and I was occupying my time by building fur-
niture. The captain hated to live in his quarters. He
wanted to sleep on the deck, so I built him a bed, and I
built him a couple of very interesting chairs that he
could sit in and relax in as best he could at night. I
got so well acquainted with fellows that had been through
terrible experiences in open lifeboats. Many of them be-
came very ill, after we were at sea. Much of the illness
was mental, but they became terribly ill. One night they
called me, and the ship's carpenter, who was a fellow I
really liked, a fellow about forty, had passed out,
absolutely cold. He was as rigid as a piece of wood or
a piece of stone. In fact, his back was not quite flat
on the bed in the middle, but was arched a little. His
eyes had rolled up and disappeared. I thought he was dead
when I walked in. Then I discovered that he was breathing
a little and that his pulse was very, very low. The guy
was a very brave man, but it got him, just plain fright,
in the middle of the night in that darn ship to think in
terms of another one going under. We put hot and cold
towels on him and massaged him for three hours before he
came to. And then he really didn't know where he was or
why we were all there. It was a weird thing. I never
had run into anything like this kind of psychology.
Then another thing had happened about that time. The
third engineer, I guess, was the first avowed Communist
I'd ever met. A Communist wasn't a common thing in those
days though you heard about guys here and there. This
fellow's job was to go down in the hold of the ship and
check the propeller shaft every so often. When the big
lever would come around and it went by, he'd touch the
bearing to see if it was getting warm and if it needed
oil. One afternoon he became careless, and he zigged
when he should have zagged. As he put his finger down,
down came the tremendous force of this great lever, and
it smashed his forefinger completely, the finger he had
used to touch the bearing with, just absolutely smashed
it. I heard this unholy roar, and it took about twenty-
five minutes--because he fought everybody--to get him
carried up the steep ladder, from the very bowels of the
ship, to the captain's deck.
They got him into the captain's cabin, and I got a
call from the captain to come immediately. I went up,
and he said, "There isn't a doctor on board, and nobody
knows anything about what to do. Do you know anything
about what to do?" I said, "Well, I certainly don't,
but have you got any kind of a first-^aid kit?" I never
saw a first-aid kit so big, as big as a suitcase, a huge
thing, loaded with stuff. In the meantime, they had
already given him a tremendous slug of whiskey, straight
whiskey, and morphine, which don't work well together at
all. They'd given him some morphine pills, and I think
it and the whiskey just worked against each other, because
he was in an absolutely horrible state and screaming.
Needless to say, he hurt like hell. They couldn't hold
him. That blood was just getting on the ceiling and on
the bed and on the floor and all over that room.
So finally I read in this pamphlet the word sulfa. It's
interesting that sulfa had been discovered less than a
year before this. It said that when at sea, you were to
clean the wound as best you could and put tons of sulfa on
it, and then wrap it up, and don't open till port. You
know the number of sailors who died from gangrene at sea
was so much greater than among people who get it on land.
So I looked at this bloody thing, and it was just hanging
there with threads, and the bone was all messed up. The
captain said, "Well, you've just got to do something."
So I performed an operation, which I'm not very proud of.
I had to cut all those shreds off and cut one piece of
bone off that was just dangling. The finger was simply
gone, down to the first joint. Then I had them hold his
hand up, and I started with some tape, from the lower
joint, and I built a cornucopia. By the time it got up
to here, it was about four inches in diameter. I poured
that thing absolutely full of half of the bottle of sulfa.
Then I took tape and went over it, over it, around it,
until I made a big ball. Boy, talk about a man and a
ball and a chain— this man on his right hand had a huge
ball on the end of what used to be a finger. Finally, we
calmed him down and he went to sleep. We were about ready
to just knock him out, he was so obstreperous.
That crazy guy really drove us up the wall. [phone
rings; tape recorder turned off] After a day or two, he
recovered enough to come on deck and proclaim how much
money he was going to get out of the U.S. government for
his own mistake. He became completely obnoxious. Well,
there was a twenty-four-hour poker game on the ship, in
the officers' quarters, and there was one in the crew's
quarters. As a correspondent, I was the only one who
could go both places. So I used to enjoy playing poker
with these fellows when we had a few minutes, at very low
stakes. When I went down to the crew's place, I saw hun-
dreds of dollars in every pot. I couldn't believe it.
Some of those people were so in debt that they would have
to pay everything that they had made on the entire trip if
they ever got back to the United States. The ship's cook
was the top winner. He had everybody. He knew how to
play poker and he had that poor crew whipped. But this
third engineer used to sit there and say to us that he
didn't know anything about poker, but he insisted on
playing, with this damn finger in the air. There was a
period that it smelled quite a bit. He'd hold that right
up in front, and between what he said about what was wrong
with our country and how much he was going to get out of
it — and everybody knew it was his own fault — he wasn't a
very well liked character.
As a matter of fact, when we got finally to Hobart,
Tasmania, the first thing we did, four of us got him into
a taxi and took him to the hospital for a coming-out party,
because we never had allowed him to take this bandage off.
We went to the doctor, an English doctor up on the emergency
ward, and explained the problem. He smiled and he started
snipping. He snipped a little more and a little bit more,
and pretty soon off came the bandage. There was the
smoothest little blunt end of a joint you've ever seen.
The doctor said, "Well, young man, there's nothing to stop
you from going right on with your ship. You're in very
good condition." I grabbed the doctor and took him out-
side and said, "Look, you go back and tell him that you're
going to have to operate on it because if he goes back on
the ship they're going to kill him. There's no question
about it. He's never going to live through the trip." So
the doctor went back and told him that on second thought,
maybe that bone inside could be a little bit sharp, and
eventually it might give him a little bit of trouble; so
he better stay over for another boat. I often wonder if
he ever got another boat and if he got killed. I've never
known such a complete, miserable son of a gun as this
Another thing that happened was that I painted a
mural in the crew's galley. They had a very nice little
crew's galley, and they were all so bored with life. It
was a tough problem, because they were scared at the same
time. So I went down and painted these very good-looking
ladies coining up out of the sea, crawling up on the boat,
and I had a lot of fun doing it.
GOODWIN: What kind of art materials did you bring with
SHEETS: I had all my paints, fortunately. I had oil paint,
and I had watercolors. So I just used my own paints to
paint the mural. They were so excited, and we had a great
big party the night that we celebrated the completion of
the mural. Two days later, the second engineer forgot to
turn off the pump motors when they were changing the oil.
To keep the ship in balance, they have to pump oil into one
side and then into the other side. About two days after I
painted the mural, he forgot to turn off the pump, and the
oil came through the ceiling of the ship's galley and went
right down this whole wall. Of course it took days to
clean the oil up so they could even use the galley. I
must say the mural had a very definitely glazed look it
never recovered from.
There were so many things that happened en route that
it's incredible. About three weeks after we left San Pedro,
a week and two days before we got to Hobart, Tasmania,
every night about dusk, the men who were not on station
began nearly always to climb up on top of the captain's
bridge, because that was the time of night when the Japanese
submarines would nearly always strike. They could get in
fairly close in the dusk, and then they could let you have
it. It just seemed better to be up there if something like
that happened. One night we'd been talking, the captain
was there, and about five or six other men were there, when
all of a sudden, about two miles behind us and off to the
left, a rocket went up. If you don't think that made the
hair on the back of your neck curl upl You've been out
there for three weeks, you haven't seen a thing except for
a few albatross and a few other birds, and then, suddenly,
you see a rocket go up. At the same moment the "Sparks,"
who handled the radio, came running up and said, "I have a
signal that there's an American lifeboat from a ship that
was sunk astern, and could we pick them up?" Well, the
captain's orders were absolutely under no circumstances
to turn back, which sounds so cruel and so terrifying.
The Japanese very often had our radios and had men who
could speak English without accents, and they used them
as decoys all over the place. Many ships were sunk as a
result of that ruse. It was the most horrible feeling,
going away, farther and farther from that signal. Then
finally, about thirty minutes later, and it was really
dark by this time, a second rocket went up. And I know
everybody on that ship was sick at heart, and I know the
captain was the sickest of all at the thought of not being
able to do anything about it, but we went on.
Then, most tragic of all, that night, about midnight.
a storm hit us that was so terrifying. I've never known
what a storm at sea was, though I thought I had in 1929
when I was on the Leviathan and the sea broke windows in
the captain's bridge. But the Leviathan was bo big that
even though the storm was horrible, it didn't seem the
same. This boat pitched around like a cork. No one could
go on any deck for about three and a half days. We had to
run with the storm way off course. The waves out at the
sea were thirty feet high. Incredible breakers would come
right in on top of you, and wind and driving, driving rain,
just such continuous onslaughts of water, you just couldn't
believe it. So that made us even feel worse, because if
they had been our boys in lifeboats there was no way they
could have survived the night.
Then we eventually landed in Hobart, which was the
most dramatic harbor entrance I've ever seen in my life.
It took a full day to go from the entrance of the harbor
up the [Derwent River] mouth. The sea goes up probably
twenty-five or thirty miles, and then eventually you get
to Hobart, Tasmania. Well, we arrived there at dusk, and
those of us who didn't have work to do were allowed to go
ashore for the first time in thirty-two days. After we
had disposed of the third engineer, about six of us— those
naval fellows and I were the freest— went into the first
bar we could get to, because there had been no liquor
aboard. We had a round of drinks, and they said the bar
is closed. Well, we said, "The bar's closed? We just
arrived." It was only like seven o'clock at night. They
said, "Well, the bar's closed because you've used up all
the liquor." So that was a kind of a surprise, but there
were some other dives which some of the boys found. In
fact, we found a very good little restaurant on the out-
skirts of town that had wine, and we all had a bottle of
wine or two. No one was feeling very much pain.
I went back to the ship, and it was, oh, about two
o'clock in the morning, and I heard a lot of racket about
four. My cabin was almost exactly where you enter the ship,
and I poked my head out of the door. The second engineer
had been ordered to stay on the ship and to work on the
propeller shaft, as there was a certain amount of vibration
in the shaft, and he was not given shore leave. He had
simply ducked overboard the minute we got there. So as
he came aboard, the first engineer said, "You're under
arrest, sir." The second engineer immediately lunged at
him and struck him, which in wartime is mutiny. It was so
ridiculous, in a sense. Of course, he had no business to
leave the ship and he was very drunk, utterly drunk. I
had to sit in as a witness at the trial two mornings later,
just before we left. They had some very high naval officers
who were in Hobart, Tasmania, along with some British naval
officers, and they held a court-martial. The prisoner sat
there with a great ball and chain, which was the first time
I'd ever seen anything like that. He was immediately flown
back to the united States, and he was sentenced to twenty
years. Now, I doubt very much if he spent twenty years,
but that was how tough they were in order to keep this kind
of thing from happening.
we were there for three days, and then we took off.
I noticed, when we were loading the ship, some very strange
cargo was going on board in addition to food. I was down
in the hold talking to someone about something, and I saw
these huge cases of ale. There were some other liquor and
a little bit of beer, but mostly ale and hard liquor, rum.
It was absolutely prohibited that this be brought aboard.
We took off late in the afternoon, down this dramatic
channel, islands like I've never seen. The hills on both
sides were absolutely covered with eucalyptus that flowed
over it like great waves. You can't imagine. There was
snow on the ground as, you see, it was wintertime down
there. In fact, we went to 45 degrees south latitude,
which was almost 800 miles south of Hobart, before coming
up into Tasmania. We were east of New Zealand, trying to
avoid those submarines-and we did avoid them, because we
never sighted one, and we certainly were not struck. So
as we left, it was very dramatic.
The captain disappeared that night. He's probably
dead now, so I think it's safe enough to say that. He
became completely drunk for four days. The ship was in
a very precarious situation. We were down in the Great
Australian Bight in the middle of tremendous storms, going
south of Australia. It's about 3,000 miles just through
that Great Australian Bight. The first mate was trying to
be everything to everybody. The worst of it during that
period was that it was the middle of the second day when
I had a call to come to the captain's quarters, along with
a young man who was actually a lieutenant in the army.
Again, here's a case of tremendous waste. They sent this
young lieutenant on this ship to check out the cargo when
it arrived in India. He supposedly was to check the cargo
during the trip, a couple of times going down into the hold,
but there was no way you could check quantities or anything
like that. How ridiculous it was to send a man all that
distance just to read a list as it came off, when all they
had to do was to send a list any number of other ways. But
anyway, that's what the army did in those days. This young
man was a charming young fellow, a graduate of the University
of California, and he had just been married, which, as with
a lot of other fellows, was a hell of a tough time to leave.
He had been born in China, the son of a missionary. The
captain of a ship, of course, is such a potent person, the
absolute ruler of a ship, with absolute control. Occasion-
ally during the voyage, down at officers' mess, the captain
would ask this young man about God, always in a sarcastic
and very deliberately mean way. It was never to try to
learn anything. He evidently didn't think much of God,
So when he became drunk, he sent for the two of us.
In my life, I've never seen anything as filthy as that
cabin. There was shit on the floor; there was the most
terrible stench and old food lying around. The boys would
bring him food, but they never dared to clean the quarters
because he raised so much hell. [tape recorder turned off]
The first thing he did was pour two very large, dirty
glasses full of rum, handed a glass to each of us, and said
to this young lieutenant, "Drink it down." I found out
later this boy had never had a drink in his life. I think
that he would have been willing to if he had to drink it,
but the combination of this order and the confusion and
the mess of the stateroom and all the rest of it was so
ghastly. Well, he took one glug of it and nearly coughed
up his stomach. He wasn't used to anything like that. I
didn't even touch mine. Then the captain said, "All right
now," and he's lying there. He had a pair of the filthiest
shorts on and nothing else, and he's just lying there like
a Roman drunk. He said, "All right now, tell me about
God." Well, this poor kid, he was only twenty-two or
-three or -four, and he just didn't know how to handle
this situation. I didn't know how to handle it because
I knew this man was really tough, and you can't cross the
captain. So he just browbeat him, kept making him drink
a little, and every once in a while he'd say to me, "Now,
you see, he doesn't know anything about God." Finally,
the captain just passed out, and we took off in a hell of
We went down to the cabin, and I said, "Well, I don't
know whether this thing is going to be repeated or not, but
it's an unholy situation, and we've got to be extremely
careful how we handle it." T^d sure enough, about four
hours later, back came the message, "Come back." The cap-
tain had this incredible thing that he was just hooked with,
to drive at this thing which bothered him, because the
lieutenant was a very nice young man and obviously a good
example of a guy who lived a decent life. So he started
in all over again. This time he was very mean about it,
and he pushed him around and was ornery as hell. Finally,
I said to rhis young fellov;, "Ycu beat it. Just take off.
Let me talk to this man." He was drowsy and miserable, so
he lefr. New, this sounds like it was the second time, but
I think this was the sixth time we went through this. Every
time it would last about a half an hour, and the room got
filthier and f ilthier--impossible .
We finally went up for the last time. I told him
before we went up, I said, "Now, when we get up there you
stick your head in the door and then just beat it, because
this can't go on." I didn't know whether he would shoot
us or what the hell he'd do, but I wasn't going to put up
with it any longer. So finally, when he left, I said.
"Now, captain, this is wrong. This is a good young man,
and you're not in any fit condition to talk like this to
him, and neither of us are coming back again, period." I
said, "You're drunk, and you ought to be ashamed." And I
just walked out before he had a chance to do a damn thing
about it. That was about six o'clock one night.
The next morning, I've never seen anything like the
change. Here he was up, shaved, clean, with a clean uni-
form, at breakfast. And of course he didn't mention it,
and we didn't mention it. But it was a weird, terrible
experience to see how a man with that much power, if he
had wanted to, could have shot him or shot me or shot
both of us, because that's the power of a ship's captain.
But I do think it brought the captain and me a little bit
closer. He talked to me a great deal more after that, and
we had some very pleasant exchanges of experiences and
We finally got around the big bend of the south
coast of Australia and headed up to Ceylon. This was
the part they feared the most, as far as the Japanese
were concerned, because they had their huge cruisers
that were equipped strictly for war, and they could
outrun anything two-to-one. They were sweeping up there,
knocking these Liberty ships off just like they were ten-
pins. The ridiculous thing about this whole course was
that when I went aboard the ship the first day, the
captain took me into his cabin and said, "Now, you're the
only person besides me who knows where we're going, and
you're absolutely under orders never to mention where
we're going." I said, "Yes, sir," and of course I didn't,
and we took off. He called me up, about four days after
we left, to his cabin one day, and he said, "I want you to
read this." He handed me a Reader 's Digest that had just
come out before we left, and in the center spread it had
the map of the Liberty ships to India, completely laid out,
the exact course that we followed, right to a tee. So he
complained about that all the way, the fact our actual
itinerary had been published in the Reader ' s Digest. So
the secrecy didn't amount to anything.
But anyway we didn't get chased by any big ships, and
we felt great when we got to Ceylon. We were there about
four hours while the captain went ashore to get certain
orders. Now, what we had in the ship was high octane
gasoline, and 1,000-pound and 500-pound aerial bombs,
small arms and ammunition, and a deckload of P-38s, which
wasn't exactly the kind of a cargo you'd like to have if
you're going to be in trouble.
We finally left Ceylon and headed for Madras. It
was terribly exciting for me to land in Madras because
it was the first time that I could really spend any time
on shore in India, although it was only part of a day.
We were unloading the P-38s at Madras, all on the deck.
and a lot of other deck cargo — jeeps and trucks and so
forth. I went into town and saw what I think I mentioned
once before, about Will Levington Comfort, the writer who
had written so much on India. Did I mention that? I
thought I had. Well, anyway, I saw what I had always
dreamed India was like when I went to Madras, because
it's a great religious center. Here were ancient old men
sitting on, in one case I remember, a tall stump — it must
have been ten feet off the ground, the top of it — and
sitting up there in the lightest clothing with a beard
way down, that at least touched his tummy, sitting up
there just contemplating the world. That whole city was
so filled with these ancient old monks and young priests
and all sorts of temples that I thought, well, India was
what I had really dreamed it was like. It was the only
place in India — and I spent almost a year there — that was
like what I had always breamed of. Madras is absolutely
unique. There are marvelous temples everywhere, north of
and all around Madras in every part of India, but here
there were more people per square foot than any place
I've ever been on earth.
Well, that night as we were coming out of the harbor,
the captain called me up to his bridge. We'd become pretty
good friends by this time. He said, "I dread the next
twenty-four hours more than the entire trip. This is the
most dangerous water — tides are incredible. They change
constantly. They're not dependable." He said, "We have
to stay quite close to the coast because of the fact that
those Japanese ships were running out there knocking our
ships out of the water. ' We have to stay within about
twenty miles of coastline all the way. It's a dangerous,
dangerous trip." So, anyway, we started off, and I went
At three o'clock in the morning, I heard the most
fantastic jangling of bells. I slept right underneath
the captain's bridge, and I could hear every bell in the
engine room perfectly because of the shaft or something.
And it was just a tremendous ruckus. Then I heard people
running on the captain's bridge over my head. I jumped
up, went out on the deck, and looked out. It was a dark
night, but there was just enough starlight so that I could
see, and not twenty feet away on my right were huge rocks.
I couldn't imagine how we could be so near big rocks. At
that point I felt a jolt, as we drove into the sand right
beside those rocks. Well, the captain had been sound
asleep on the bridge in that bed I'd made for him, and he
had awakened out of a sound sleep and jumped up screaming,
"Hard left and full speed astern." He knew from the echo
of the sound of the engines that we were that close to
grounding, and that the worst was on the right. If he
hadn't given that order we'd have gone straight into the
rocks, and the whole damn ship could have blown up. But
as it happened, we missed the rocks, this very heavy rocky
point, by about ten or twelve feet, and we went into pure
sand. Well, I was standing out there just wondering what
the hell was going to happen noW, and this captain looked
down from up on the bridge, and he said, "Well, God damn
it, you've been wanting to go to India. Step off. There
she is, mother India."
I could have jumped right off onto the rocks, prac-
tically. The mate came down and dropped a lead to see how
much water we were drawing in the middle of the ship, where
I was. We had fourteen inches of clearance in the middle,
so we were well aground. Well, he talked a great deal
about what they would have to do, and that they would have
to wait for high tide. They waited for high tide, and then
started their engines up, and they went "glug, glug, glug,
glug..." and stopped. The condensers filled up instantly
with sand. The propellers were so close to the ground
that they churned up so much sand that the condensers were
immediately filled. Because they're hot, it took, I think,
six hours before they could take them out to clean them.
And we missed that tide completely. In the meantime there
were little dirigibles flying over us and airplanes flying
over us, trying to get us to break radio silence, but the
captain wouldn't do it. I was up on the bridge with him,
and he had a pistol lying on the top of his wardrobe.
When there was nobody else in the cabin, he said, "If I
don't get off of here," he said, "I'm going to use that."
He said, "All my papers will be in that drawer. I can't,
I just can't, face losing another ship. I just can't face
it after all the things that I've been through." Well,
they got the next tide, and by going just maybe, "glug,
glug," and then waiting, they gradually floated clear.
It took seven hours to get that ship, under the best tide,
out where we knew we were free, and then they didn't dare
to really start moving because the water was so shallow.
But we got out by about, oh, eight o'clock at night. We
crept out and very slowly went up the balance of the trip
to the mouth of the Jumna River, where we had to wait until
the next morning because they won't let you go up during
the night. There were about six Liberty ships out there,
all in the area waiting. We started up the river when
Well, for somebody born and raised in California,
the sight of what we saw going up that river was almost
too much. It takes a full day to go up the river in a
big ship to Calcutta, it's that far inland. It's on a
great delta. You know, the delta comes out and you go
up right in through the delta, which is built up by the
river. We'd gone up about twenty miles when I began to
see bodies floating down the river. If you've never seen
that, it's a little bit hard to explain how shocking it
is. Because I'd always heard they'd burned everybody in
India when they died, I couldn't understand why these
people were floating down the river. I didn't know that
they were having the greatest famine ever known in India
and that people were dying like flies. During the first
three months I was there 1,300,000 people died from hunger.
They were people that had migrated for such a long distance--
to them, not to us--but for 500 to 800 miles toward Calcutta,
Most of them were so weak that when they got there they
died, and they were just thrown in the river, like cord-
wood. It was the only place to do it; they didn't have
the wood or manpower for cremation.
Well, going up that river was the most amazing com-
bination of being shocking and enchanting, because the
villages that I saw were so beautiful with this tropical,
jungly background, people and temples all along the way,
and still bodies floating down. Every time you looked
around, there came another one. I'll never forget it.
TAPE NUMBER: V, SIDE ONE
DECEMBER 10, 197 6
SHEETS: We arrived up at the King George docks. I took
a taxi from there to the Far Eastern Hotel to check in.
When I had left Los Angeles, they told me that was head-
quarters, but when I arrived there I discovered that they
had moved the headquarters six blocks. And in walking six
blocks, I counted nineteen dead bodies, lying on the side-
walk, by the curb and in the gutters, and probably 150
people that were in various stages of dying. You'd think
this person was dead, and then maybe a hand would slowly
turn over. It was the most shocking thing in the world
to find yourself in that kind of situation. Equally
shocking was the fact that on the window of this hotel
was posted an eight-course dinner. It was a horrible
kind of affair because the Bengal government of India was
trying to blame the British, and the British were trying
to blame the Bengal government. There had been a terrible
drought, and crops had failed. This was followed by two
successive years of hurricanes, and food, seed and every-
thing else had run out. The tragedy was that these people
had heard about this mythical city, Calcutta, which was
anywhere from 400, 500 miles to 1,000 miles away, and whole
family groups simply migrated on foot. I must say that the
men did give their food to the children and the women, and
they nearly always died first. The family groups were so
pathetic; you can't believe what famine does to bodies.
The Indians, at least in that section of India, did not
fight for food. I saw people die in the middle of food
that was piled high in markets. By markets, I mean little
narrow alleyways with raised floors where the merchants
sat--maybe eighteen inches or twenty-four inches above
the floor level — and lying in these narrow alleyways were
family groups. If they reached up with a hand without
even sitting up they could have gotten various kinds of
food. But I don't believe that in their way of life they
ever would have made that effort. I think it's just impos-
sible to conceive of it, having watched people die like
Well, of course I was not completely off course, and
I spent the first two weeks in India covering the famine.
I went into villages where not a soul was alive. I went
out with an American officer in a jeep, and we saw things
that were beyond my comprehension: whole villages being
cleaned up by jackals and buzzards. That's the only gar-
bage disposal they had. They say that about 3,000,000
people migrated, and 1,300,000 of them died. I saw great
lines of people that were being fed by individuals. The
lines would be 500 people long. They would come up, the
last part of them, to a place where they would be dished
a little rice, a little soup, or something, and the food
would run out. They would have to wait until the next
day, and they formed the front of the line. It was the
most pathetic thing in the world. I made a whole group
of drawings, paintings, which I sent back to Life, where
they were printed in an issue on the famine. [Life,
XV: 21, November 22, 1943]
GOODWIN: Did you paint right on the scene?
SHEETS: I made little pen sketches. I made the paintings
after I got back to headquarters at New Delhi or someplace
where I could work. You couldn't paint under those condi-
tions. But I have a good memory, and I made enough drawings
so that it was very clear.
Then, after checking in at Calcutta for a day or two,
after I'd finished this roughly two weeks in the famine
area, I flew up to Delhi with the British in an airplane
that looked like it was put together with chewing gum and
women's hairpins. I've never seen such an outfit. They
were a wonderful bunch of guys, marvelous pilots, but I
really couldn't believe the airplane itself after being
accustomed to American airplanes. I arrived in Delhi
about ten o'clock in the morning, and by this time I had
the old Calcutta crud. Oh, I was so ill. I had a terrible
fever and the dysentery and all the things that go with it.
I really thought I was going to die and hoped I would, I
felt so horrible.
I was taken to an officers' billet in a funny kind
of a so-called hotel. They took me up to this room and
said, "That's your bed." You had to crawl over about four
beds to get to it. There were thirty beds in the room.
You had a footlocker at the bottom of it, and that was it.
At that time of day, there wasn't anyone there, and I
finally got into bed. Even with blankets on and my uniform
on I was shivering. I finally went to sleep. Then I broke
out in the usual thing, cold sweat and all the rest of it.
I was miserable.
I went back to sleep again, and about three o'clock
in the afternoon I was violently shaken by someone, and I
didn't even know where I was. I was, you know, in that
bewildered state, and after all the experiences I'd been
through for two and a half months — because the last half
of the trip took thirty days on the Liberty ship (the total
was sixty days from California to India) , plus this other
two weeks, and the bewildering variety of those experiences,
and the intensity of them — I was just dead out. Well, this
guy was shaking the hell out of me, and I finally roused up
enough to look at him. He said, "What in the hell are you
doing in India?" And it was a friend of mine that I used
to meet pretty regularly in Southern California tennis
tournaments, a fellow by the name of Hal Service, who was
an excellent tennis player, a damn good tennis player. He
nearly always beat me in the finals or semifinals. He said,
"Come on now. Get up. We're going to go play tennis."
And boy, just the thought of that was the most sickening
thing I ever thought of, but he finally persuaded me to
get dressed and go with him. He didn't say where he was
going, and I was terribly shaky, but I finally struggled
out. It was so good to see someone that I knew, and I
felt practically half -cured by that.
We go downstairs, and we get into a jeep. It had a
big flag, I remember, a big long stick up on the front
pole with a flag on it. Boy, he hightailed it out some-
where in this thing, going like a bat out of hell. He
had a couple of tennis rackets. We'd go by some very
important-looking buildings, up a hill between more impor-
tant-looking buildings. I found out later that they were
the general headquarters for the British army on one side,
and the navy, I think, on the other. Then we went right
through the biggest gates I've ever seen, and right up to
the steps of the viceroy's palace.
Standing on the steps waiting for Hal Service was the
viceroy of India [Lord Victor A.J.H. Linlithgow], the Jam
Saheb of Nawanger, and the aide to the viceroy, who turned
out to be a second cousin to the king of England. They
were all dressed to play tennis. I was introduced, sickly
as I was, and followed them down through the most beautiful
gardens, fantastic gardens, to these beautiful tennis
courts. They had two of the most exciting sets of doubles.
They were just marvelous. The Jam Saheb of Nawangar was at
that time the head of the chamber of princes, educated in
Oxford, and a brilliant guy. He weighed about 230 or 240
pounds, and he probably wasn't over five feet six high.
But I think you could say he was floating power. He had
a fantastic ability at tennis and moved very beautifully
on the court. They had two great sets of tennis, which I
thoroughly enjoyed watching, lousy as I felt.
Finally they came over and sat down, under the great
awnings. It looked like a real Oriental palace certainly,
down there with all those pools and the tennis courts.
They were having drinks. The young colonel--well , he
wasn't so young. He was probably older than I was. I
was then someplace in my thirties , and he was probably in
his early forties. He came over and sat down beside me,
and he said, "Tell me again, what was your name?" I told
him. He smiled in the funniest way, and he said, "I want
you to come with me." So we walked, and it killed me to
walk, back up this hill, up many, many steps--! mean
at least 100 feet up; we were down that low--up to the
viceregal palace. The palace was laid out in such a way
that there was a main central part, and then two wings
went off at 45-degree angles at each end. One of those
wings was his. Being related to the king and being aide
to the viceroy, he had a real position. We went through
a living room, beautiful quarters, into a huge library.
He walked around that library a little while, and then
walked around that library a little while, and then he got
on a little ladder and went up, and came down with a book.
I couldn't believe it, but it was a book that was published
on my work in 1938 [Millard Sheets , by Merle Armitage] . In
addition to that, he had four magazines that I had things
appear in in England, mainly, the London Studio magazine
many times during the thirties. It turned out that he was
a watercolor painter and that he absolutely loved to paint
more than anything else. But serving as he was in the army,
he didn't have time to paint. But he had become interested
in my work through these peculiar circumstances of these
books and magazines. He'd written for the book, having
seen the magazines.
Well, as a result of that, my whole experience in
India was changed because it was his duty as the aide to
the viceroy to arrange everything that went on in the
viceroy's palace. So, through Lord [Victor A.J.H.]
Linlithgow, the viceroy, who was only there for about six
weeks after I arrived, I was invited to at least six or
seven beautiful parties, including dinner parties in the
viceregal mansion because my friend wrote the lists of
guests. I got to know him and enjoy him very much, and
Linlithgow was an interesting character, a tall, skinny
guy who was very much the old-type Englishinan, the old
type you'd think that you knew ran India. When they
retired him and brought out Lord [Archibald P.] Wavell,
who was the General Wavell who had won the battle of
Africa, you had a totally different situation.
Lord Wavell arrived with his wife and their daughter
at the airport, and he was sworn in at the airport as the
viceroy of India. He got right back in the plane, flew
directly to Calcutta, and in three days stopped the whole
famine. In three days he had every so-called indigent in
rest camps. Some of them were too far gone to save, but
they were given decent treatment. There was at all times
ample food. There was no lack of food. This was a political
situation where human life meant nothing, and it was a
tragedy to beat any that I have ever witnessed. I wasn't
in Germany when Hitler operated, but it was as close to
that kind of incredibility. He went down, moved through
that area for about three or four days in helicopters and
various other ways, and stopped the whole thing, just like
He came back and, again, I continued to be involved
in things that went on out at the viceroy's palace, be-
cause the same man remained as his aide. I thoroughly
enjoyed Lord Wavell and his wife and their daughter. They
were charming, interesting, very simple people, and I don't
know how many times I had dinner with just the Wavells and
this young colonel, just the five of us. I did get to know
them, both Lord and Lady Wavell, quite well.
Later on, they held a major exhibition of war artists.
and that meant all the free artists. There were some French
artists; there were of course many British and quite a few
Americans by this time. It was an exciting experience, and
Mrs. Wavell was really a tremendous person. Well, I'm
getting ahead of my story, but just for example, after I
had been there something like six or seven months, this
exhibition was held, and I had a great many paintings from
the famine and a great many of the war. I took them down
to have them put into the exhibit, then I went back to the
preopening of the exhibit to be with Mrs. Wavell and this
young colonel. As we walked through, we couldn't find my
work. It simply wasn't on view. Finally Mrs. Wavell asked
the question, not of this colonel but of another young
colonel who hung the exhibit where my paintings were. In
a rather embarrassed way, he opened a door and took us into
a room that was simply closed off, and there they were all
hung. She had the greatest dignity I've ever known. They
turned on the light and she looked at every picture very
carefully. She talked to me about each one of them, and
then after she had really looked at the exhibit, she turned
to this colonel and said, "Colonel, will you please close
the exhibit now, and I expect these to be properly hung
tomorrow." They hung them there because of the political
problem of the famine, but that wasn't going to affect Lady
Wavell for one second. So my paintings were put right out
in the middle of the exhibition the next morning when the
thing opened. But that's the kind of a person she was, and
Lord Wavell was the same. He was an amazing guy. He had
lost an eye, but he had this marvelous spirit. That patch
was very dominating in the way he wore it.
I quickly learned that out of thirty-four correspondents
in the C-B-I theater, the China-Burma-India theater, not one
of them was at the front. It certainly wasn't because they
didn't want to go. The British had the final control and
wouldn't allow them. They wouldn't give them visas to go
to China. They wouldn't let the orders be cut. They
wouldn't let them go where the fighting was down in South
Burma, which was the Arakan. Here everyone was, tied down,
trying to write stories about the war and getting it all
from releases that were very, very inconsequential. That
was a bad experience, just to be there with a bunch of guys
that had not enough to do. They would write their stuff in
about thirty minutes in the morning and then hope that some
of it would be filed. It was very exasperating. My greatest
pleasure was to go to the races with the colonel on
Saturdays, where they had fantastic horse racing. I
played tenris and played a little bit of squash. I would
paint most of the day, then do these other things in the
Well, it was at that time, about two months after I
arrived in India, that Lord Mountbatten arrived as the
supreme commander of the whole Far East theater. Needless
to say, again, I was a guest at the first dinner for
Mountbatten. To my complete pleasure and surprise, I sat
at his right at a small table for five people. We had a
most pleasant conversation. He was a charming man, full
of real spirit and excitement about this new challenge to
him to put it all together. He finally got around to saying,
"Well, what are you doing exactly as a correspondent?" I
explained very simply that I wasn't doing what I thought I
came to India to do, which was to go to war. He listened,
and I finally explained that there were thirty-four people
He said, "Would you like to go to the Arakan?" I said,
"I certainly would." He clapped [claps hands] his hands a
couple of times, and from among all the aides who stood up
at the bar eating a few feet away, his chief aide came over.
He said, "Get in touch with Air Marshal Joubert immediately,
and set up a flight for Mr. Sheets to Chittagong. When
would you like to go, Mr. Sheets, tomorrow?" I thought he
was just giving me a leg- pulling job, and I said, "No, but
I'd like to go the day after tomorrow. I need one day to
get ready." He said, "Day after tomorrow, set up a flight,
and have him met and flown by a small plane right down to
the front on the next day." He said, "Then, I want him to
be with Tony Beauchamp," who was a reporter for the army,
not a correspondent. He took motion pictures and documen-
taries for the British army. This all happened so fast.
He said, "You're serious?" I said, "Well, you're darn
right I'm serious." He said, "Well, it's all set up."
He called me personally the next morning and said that
everything had been completed.
Well, to my utter surprise, here I was ready to go.
I covered the Arakan battle for all the correspondents in
that theater for two months because none of them were
allowed to get there. I got word back to them from which
they made many releases. I didn't plan to be a war corres-
pondent, but I did get them the material they needed to
make it more alive.
Well, I arrived down there, and it was really an
experience. Chittagong, I'll never forget, was a sort of
funny airport out in the middle of the jungle. At that
time they were having sweeps regularly from Zeroes coming
up from the front, and they were losing planes and having
dogfights all over the place. I slept in a basha . The
night before, they'd gotten a boa constrictor ten feet
long nearby they told me. I thought for a while they were
just pulling my leg, but I found out they actually did get
him. I was introduced to the kind of horrible food that
you get in the British army. I was introduced with one
fell swoop, and I never have had worse food, worse every-
thing, filthy, which was because of the fact that it was
impossible to keep it otherwise.
I was then flown down to the -jungle. I landed on a
little airstrip, where some British fliers were flying
that marvelous plane, the Spitfire. It was the first time
I saw a fighting strip right at the front. There was a
strip cut out of the jungle, a very heavy jungle there,
and then there were these little side cuts where they kept
the airplanes. After they'd get a call that the Zeroes
were headed up, they would be in the air in about two and
a half minutes, whether they were in bed asleep or down in
the bar or in the kitchen or wherever they might be. I
never saw such a bunch of guys. They were fellows who had
been flying, by this time, some of them, four and a half
years. They had been in France, had come out of France,
then they had been sent to Singapore and driven the full
length of the Malaya peninsula.
They were terrific fighters. In fact, the first
evening I was there--I was there two evenings before I
was met by the jeep, and in two evenings we had two sweeps
of Zeroes. I've never seen anything like when they took
off. The gong would ring, and they'd run for their planes,
The idea was to beat the other guy off, and there was no
caution. They'd come out of those places, and if two
planes were side by side, they'd practically lock wings
taking off together. I've never seen such gutsy guys.
They would take off, and there were dogfights. A couple
of them were shot down. The pilots escaped, actually;
they parachuted down. But it was- my first introduction
to real fighting.
Then I was met by Beauchamp, who was a marvelous
fellow. He was about six foot two, very intelligent,
extremely handsome and artistic. He took photographs,
but he also painted. His father was an architect. He
had a lot of background in art. We really had quite a
time together, because it was always interesting to be
with him, except that he constantly got us into trouble.
He couldn't get enough war. He couldn't get enough
fighting, so we always got into scrapes.
A man by the name of Sharp, who had been the head of
news in London for the BBC for all the war up to that time,
was, in order to get a rest, sent to India and then to
the Arakan. He joined us for about four days and rode
around in our jeep with us. He was a charming guy and a
terrific conversationalist. Beauchamp talked the two of
us into a real thing. He said, "Now, tomorrow there's
going to be the most incredible fight, an attack on Bamboo
Hill. We've been trying to take Bamboo Hill for three
solid years. Every year we've made an attempt, and every
year we can't get past it. We're sometimes driven back
farther, but we never can get past Bamboo Hill." They
jelly bombed it, they put continuous dive bombing on it,
long-range artillery on it, but the Japanese would just
go down into their bunkers and play pinochle until the
bombing was over, and then they'd come up and thumb their
noses at the British. You could see them; I saw them many.
many times. The British had worked for months to get some
tanks sent out to the Arakan, and they'd assembled them
all in the jungle, but they couldn't bring them out without
exposing them. So for three nights, every night they'd
bring them down slowly towards this front. And this attack
was going to be the next morning. Beauchamp said, "Now, if
you two guys go out with me, I can bribe one of the sentries."
He led us out until we were right in the middle between the
two lines, and there was a place there where we could park
for the night. Beauchamp said to me, "Next morning, when
these nine tanks are ready to come in, Millard, you drive
the jeep, get right in as close as you can to that big
first tank, right behind it. The colonel that's in charge
of this tank attack will be in it, and we'll follow him
right in. And then at a certain point"--and he showed me
a map, all drawn very carefully — "we'll make a hard left
turn and cut off and get behind a hill, a little low hill
that will keep us protected."
Well, you know, you get kind of stirred up. You've
seen so much agony, and we never thought they were ever
going to do anything down there. I had seen guys just
massacred. I went through part of that time, for over
thirty days, when we never took our boots off. It was
during the monsoon, and the rain was horrible. We'd been
going over cliff roads and being shot at, and just things
you can't believe. Well, this night we did what he said.
It was a semimoonlit night, only semi. We drove out, and
he bribed the sentry, and we got out in front. At about
200 yards we pulled off to the left, where grass was about
five feet high. We drove the jeep right in, and we had a
big tarp that we had taken for this purpose. The three of
us pulled it out as tight as we could, and we got the four
corners and pulled them out. Then we just stamped on the
tarp until we got the grass down. Here we were sitting in
little pockets surrounded by the high grass. We just had
gotten comfortably settled about eight-thirty at night
when this fantastic artillery fire began from our side
shooting over toward the Japanese. We were right under
it. The shells were going over, boom, boom, boom, boom —
just so close you couldn't believe it. Then they started
on the other side. We could hear every shell, probably no
more than fifty feet above us. This bombardment went on
for about three hours. It was a horrible experience. I'd
never sat under that kind of canopy before. Finally it
stopped. By this time we were plenty willing to go to
sleep. We had our bedrolls and I went to sleep.
In a couple of hours, I guess, I heard the most un-
earthly scream. If there was one thing that we didn't
want to hear, it was anybody scream, because we were right
out in the middle between the lines and we didn't know how
close the Japanese were to us. Sharp was just screaming
in agony. I had a flashlight, so I put it so just the
tiniest little beam of light came through between my
fingers. As I hit this tiny beam of light on his face,
the biggest bat you'd ever seen, that had been absolutely
fastened to the front of his face, took off. He was
scratched and dug and clawed by this creature, and his
face was the goddamnedest mess of ribbons you've ever
seen. He was just hysterical, and I don't blame him.
I mean, God knows if he had any idea of what it was that
was on his face. But a big old hairy bat that was at
least ten inches (and maybe bigger) across was something
to scare the hell out of you. Well, nobody slept anymore
that night. I put my face right straight down under my
blanket, and my bedroll up over my head.
We waited until the beginning of dawn when we heard
this little bit of rumbling, so we jumped up and picked
up our cameras and got into the jeep. Of course, we
never undressed or anything like that. We got into the
jeep, and I got behind the wheel. Sharp sits on the little
back poop deck, and Tony Beauchamp stood up right beside
me in the jeep with his camera. He had an old-fashioned
camera, the kind you used to have to wind. The first
tank came by us and went about fifty feet up ahead and
stopped. So I drove right up and got right behind it,
very close to it. The big turret door opened, and the
colonel climbed up and stuck his head out and stood there
with his binoculars to study the scene ahead.
I should have said that all this time there was a
fantastic amount of bombing going on, mostly dive bombing,
which was followed with great waves of Liberators. Later
I flew with the same fellows who did this, so I knew the
story from both ends. There were about five planes in
each echelon, one and then two and then three. The lead
bombardier, at a certain point when he was over the target
with his bombsight, would cut loose, and then instantly
the others would cut loose following his release, which
made a saturation bombing out of it. They were followed
by one wave after another. One would go across this way,
one would go across that way, and so forth. They were
going like spokes of a wheel in every direction. As this
particular group went over, and they were coming exactly
toward us, I was watching the plane up there above me.
All of a sudden I realized that this echelon was
coming toward us. This group of five had released their
bombs too late, and they were going to come right down
our way. There wasn't any question in the world about it.
Well, there's nothing that you can do. I knew that there
was no way those bombs were going to miss us.
Later I talked to the bombardier himself who made
that mistake as well as with the captain of the plane
when I flew with them four or five months later. What
had happened was that as the bombardier went over the
target — and it was his first flight and he was excited —
he didn't release the bomb quite in time. There was so
much ack-ack in the air and there were so many Zeroes
around, that instead of going around again, he let go,
only maybe three seconds or four seconds beyond where he
should have let go.
Well, behind us were the rest of the tanks, and then
there were about 10,000 Gurkha troops and a lot of British
troops and a lot of Indian troops. They had evacuated all
the natives that were anywhere near this area a week before,
to a village back about three miles. What happened was
that the first bomb struck just about 125 or 130 feet from
us, and then from there on they went for three miles. It's
the most incredible thing to see a bomb hit, then the
cattle in the fields just roll over and the men the same.
It was like a fake motion picture, an incredible experience
of seeing so many people die and so instantly. The colonel
who was looking out above the turrets was decapitated, and
his head fell right in front of us. The only thing that
saved us was our exact location in relation to that tank.
We were so close to it that it served as a shield. Every-
thing around us, behind us, and in front of us was knocked
out. Well, there was complete consternation when the
colonel was killed, but some men climbed up and pulled
the body down, somebody else took his place, and the tank
What my friend Beauchamp had talked us into was that
when this attack starts, we'll be able to take photographs
like nobody's ever taken. "We're going to go right in with
a tank in the foreground and these dive bombers and the
other bombers and all this stuff, and we're going to be
perfectly safe. We'll pull off to the side." Well, we
went in just like he planned it. By this time there was
so much going on, there was such a terrible bunch of con-
fusion because the soldiers had been killed and the tank
commander killed and so much else that it was absolutely
awful, we went on down maybe 200 or 300 yards, and then
we made our quick turn to the left and parked in behind a
hill that was about as high as this room. But it maybe
was 150 feet in diameter, something like that, maybe 200
feet. It had fairly tall dead grass on it, about like
that. [points] Then Beauchamp said, "Okay, we're going
to have a grandstand seat. We'll just climb up on our
bellies, up to the top of this hill, and we'll watch the
whole thing." Well, it didn't sound very good to me, but
I didn't know where else to go, so we climbed up and
slithered up this hill. We got up there, and we were
peeking through just little pieces of the grass. The
tanks were going on in, lumbering in and shooting like
mad, and the dive bombers were coming in. There was
more artillery behind us.
All of a sudden, Beauchamp just stood up and started
panning this way and that with that damned camera of his.
It didn't take more than about ten seconds before the
machine guns started raking our hill. Boy, I never got
as close to the ground in my life. We were just barely
over the hill on the right side. And we crawled away from
there as fast as we could. I won't repeat the things that
I said to him. He thought it was just funny as hell. In
about five minutes we're in a new place, and he stands up
again, and we have a repeat performance. That went on for
about three hours. Every little while he'd get up and take
another whack at it. Finally, I just got as near as I
could to the jeep and didn't dare move. By this time,
they're dropping mortar fire. You know what a mortar is?
It's a lob. You just throw something over, like you'd
throw a tennis ball over a fence. This stuff was going
all over. It was enough to cure me for all time of the
whole idea of war.
But it took about six hours before we felt safe enough
to get in that jeep and make a run for it. We couldn't go
back the way we came up— that was completely a fighting
area— so we went back through a little jungle trail (that's
all it was) and finally got back. That was a real intro-
duction to being under fire. Of course we had a lot of it.
I was in the jungle later with a bunch of Welsh troops
that had been fighting for four solid years on the ground.
They didn't even get letters from home. They didn't write
any letters. They just said, "We're on borrowed time," and
I think something like 10 percent of their original outfit
was alive. They had been in Singapore, and they had been
evacuated. Their stories were just unbelievable, they
were so bad. I remember being up there with those fellows
in trenches on top of a hill and watching our guys trying
to go down into the ravine and then climb up to try to take
Bamboo Hill. I wrote an article that was used as a Life
report [Life , XVI: 23, June 5, 1944] , one of their editorials
that has a complete account of that incident. Later on it
was chosen as one of the accounts in the war that was
honored by being put in a special book.
But these are things that you just have to experience
in order to understand. I don't think anybody should have
to experience them — but to really understand what a hor-
rifying situation it is you must. Another time I was down
in a little ravine behind the hill where I was living with
some Tommies, and they used to bring tea up twice a day,
with open buckets tied onto the backs of burros, one on
each side. Of course the so-called tea was always filled
with saccharine, and you had grasshoppers and bugs of
various kinds. You never had a lid on anything. I was
standing there with two Tommies, who were about six feet
away from me. We were talking, and they gave me some of
this lousy tea, then they started right down our ravine.
From Bamboo Hill, the Japanese were lobbing shells over
the hill where the trenches were, right into this ravine.
They knew the terrain so well— they'd been over it; they
knew it--and these shells came bing, bing , bing, just like
that. A shell hit the ground about twenty feet away, just
absolutely cut off the face of one of the men. The other
guy was killed, but I wasn't scratched, never even scratched.
It killed the donkey. I was standing on the other side of
the donkey and I think it shielded me. I don't remember
what it was, but such things happened so many times in the
war that I just couldn't believe it.
I think one of the weirdest experiences was when I was
still in Delhi. I had charge of seven artist correspondents
from Life. As they would arrive one by one, I would assign
them different parts of the area. Of course, I set up the
idea that I was going to go to China; that was for me. I
waited until the last man arrived, an old, old friend of
mine from San Francisco, an artist named Lucien Labaudt,
who I'd known, a remarkable fellow. He was in his fifties,
and I was in my thirties. When he arrived, he was the last
man I had to send out to a particular place. So he said,
"Where am I to go?" I said, "You're going to go to upper
Burma, and you're going to work around the Merrill
Marauders" that were being trained there. "Oh, no, I've
got to go to China." I said, "Well, you can go to China,
we'll all go to China, but we're going to take turns." I
said, "My orders are cut, and I'm leaving on Monday." This
was on Thursday. I said, "I'm going, I've been waiting
here for two and a half months to go." He said, "Millard,
I just have got to go to China or I can't stand it." I
thought he was going to cry. Finally I said, "Well, I
don't think there's a chance that I can get your orders
cut. Yours are cut for the other place."
But here, again, is one of those things. Way back in
the early days here, I knew the commanding general socially,
I called him up, and I told him the situation. He said,
"Well, my, you don't ask for much, do you? Hell, you can't
do this, according to regulations." I said, "I know, but
this man is a remarkable artist. He's a very good artist,
and he's an old friend of mine. If it means that much to
him, hell, let's let him go up there for a month or two,
and then I'll go up. Or I'll go up anyway." So finally
he said, "Well, all right, I'll see if I can get him cut."
So he did the next day. It was Friday. He called up and
said, "Okay, I've got the orders cut and I think you ought
to give me a dinner party for this." So we made it a
celebration for the artist and for the general and for a
couple of other friends of mine, correspondents. We had
a beautiful dinner party, and we really gave Labaudt a
send-off. I was heartbroken inside, but at the same time
I knew how much it meant to him, and I thought, well, what
the hell, I can go where I want to later.
So we took him down to the plane on Monday morning,
real early, a plane to go down to Agra, where the Taj Mahal
is. There he was to catch the plane up to northern Burma
and then over the hump. We gave him a hell of a send-off,
and away he went.
TAPE NUMBER: V, SIDE TWO
DECEMBER 10, 1976
SHEETS: Late that same afternoon I was cleaning up after
painting, and one of the Life photographers rushed in and
said, "Millard, what was Labaudt ' s first name?" I said,
"What do you mean 'what was'?" He said, "He was killed
on the plane that you were going on." I said, "How in the
world . . . ? What do you mean?" He said, "Well, what
happened was that he went down to Agra, and everybody was
loaded on board the plane. A fighter pilot, a major who
was very famous out there, walked into the cockpit and
said, 'Captain, I'm going to fly this today up to Burma
and then over the hump.' The young pilot asked him, 'Have
you been checked out on these twin motor planes?' He said,
•Oh, yes. Get over.' So without going through the routine
of really checking him out, he let the major fly. Well, he
came over this big airport up in northern Burma, and he
undershot the field by 1,000 feet, and everybody was killed,
That was the plane that I would have been on.
This thing happened so many times. Here I lost one
of my closest friends, but time after time when I was
flying bombing missions, there were similar situations.
I would fly with a group for maybe a week or two or three,
get into a card game one night, a poker game, and somebody
would say, "Why don't you fly with this intelligence group
tomorrow?" I'd say, "Okay," and I'd go with them the next
night, and the crew I'd been flying with were killed that
night. It just happened so many times it's just kind of
like a bad, funny dream. But the Arakan campaign was a
pathetic thing because they never gained a mile in that
whole campaign that year, and thousands of men were ter-
ribly wounded or killed.
One night while we were there the Japanese infiltrated.
(You don't have nice, clean front lines in this jungle
fighting.) 'They infiltrated what would have been called
the -front, and 20 0,000 Japanese came through. They got
seventy-five miles behind the British lines, attacked
general headquarters, and killed the three generals under
the commanding general. The only way he escaped was by
jumping over a cliff and hiding in the jungle. The British
were in terrible consternation, and they thought that this
was it, but they reassembled their forces and counter-
attacked. I'm ashamed to say this, but as far as I know,
they never took a prisoner of the 200,000. They just
slowly eliminated them.
A good friend of mine, another correspondent, working
with UP [United Press] , who later went down to the Arakan
when the British did let some correspondents go, was walking
where he thought he was twenty miles behind the front, and
a Japanese shot him through the buttocks from up in a tree.
This sniper was still there long after the Japanese were
driven out. He got a Purple Heart, which was hung on the
seat of his pants at the presentation. These were incredible
But after being with the British about two months, I
got some kind of fever again. They didn't know what it
was, so they sent me back to Delhi, where Life had an
apartment for its people which could take three or four
men but generally one or two would be there at a time.
It was there that I met Eric Sevareid on his way up to
China. Then later, after he had made his famous jump from
a crippled plane on a flight over the hump, landing among
Naga tribesmen and walking out for twenty-seven days, he
stayed in my apartment. We've been very good friends ever
At Christmastime, I had a marvelous ten days up at
Udaipur, where I was sent for a rest cure, and it was a
great chance to paint. It was fantastically beautiful and
interesting. I went back seven years ago, and it hasn't
changed an iota. It's something that I had always talked
about, and my wife and I wanted to see it together. We
thoroughly enjoyed it.
After that I went down to Pandavesvar, which was
about sixty miles west northwest of Calcutta, where we
had our Tenth Air Force headquarters. This was the head-
quarters for all the Liberator bombers. General Davidson,
the commander, was another man who I had known, even long
before the air school days. His wife had studied painting
with me way back when he was stationed at March [Air Force
Base] at Riverside and I was teaching at Claremont, so it
was great to be with him. The bombing missions were going
on every day or sometimes twice a day all over north Burma.
I was on the longest mission that was ever flown by a
Liberator in the war. It was a mission to 100 miles south
of Bangkok, all the way from Pandavesvar. The planes took
off at fifteen-minute intervals and nineteen bombers went
out that night. As there was a complete undercast and a
complete overcast, there was no way we could sight anything,
so it was all done by navigation. We flew for so many hours
south over the Indian Ocean, and then we turned at a certain
moment and flew over the Malaya peninsula. I never saw it.
Eventually, we were way south of Rangoon, clear across those
high mountains. In fact, the map showed that there wasn't
any mountain higher than 10,000 feet, and we were flying at
10,000 feet. But the only time we saw anything was when
there was a little bit of moonlight and we saw a peak that
must have been at least 2,000 feet higher than we were,
which we saw in time and went around. Then we descended
in the dark and with no visible sight until we got under-
neath the undercast. We came out at about 4 00 feet.
It's incredible—I know it couldn't have been accidental-
but dead ahead of us were the islands that we were supposed
to bomb. The Japanese had built about twenty-five big
concrete gasoline tanks on these islands, which were off-
shore about five miles. As we came in, climbing to about
1,500 feet, the bombardier was all set. By his reckoning
and the navigation, we went in for the bomb run. I was
lying on my belly underneath the flight deck with my head
hanging out the bomb bay door , and I watched the bombs go
out. You're supposed to count maybe two seconds for the
bombs to land, but before I could count one second the
whole damn place blew up. There was a plane close ahead
of us that had hit half a second ahead of us. We just tore
that place from hell to breakfast and then discovered there
was a fleet of Japanese ships in the lee of these islands.
Our damn captain thought it would be smart, having gotten
all the bombs away, to go down and strafe them for one
last push. That's one of the many times in the war that
I thought, "Well, there is no way you can go one minute
beyond this." It's strange what happened to me every time
that happened, and that is a sense of utter peace. I can't
tell you why. Fear goes out the window. It isn't because
you're brave. It's just something that the human body does
or the spirit or something that makes you feel like it's
inevitable. You'd had a hell of a good ride up till now,
and that's it. Tracer bullets were coming up our tail,
and a man was killed in the cockpit that night. It was
just incredible. Yet somehow we got out of there, and we
headed back to India. We were a little bit crippled, but
not too much, but we had a bad wind situation. Of course
those planes in those days didn't have controlled, pres-
surized cabins. We ended up landing on the mud of the
JuTuna delta, and then we had to be flown out by helicopters.
The airplane was finished, and there was no way of getting
out by any other method.
On other missions, we flew over Rangoon; we flew over
Mandalay; we flew over all sorts of areas in north Burma.
We flew on a cover mission when a big glider attempt was
made to take a section of Burma 1,000 miles behind the
Japanese lines. That was a weird experience. They took
over 500 gliders, towed them into the area, and cut them
loose. The problem was that as they went down, they
couldn't get out of the way of the next glider. More men
were killed that way than any other way. But they did get
the bulldozers on the ground, and they did clear the ground
up to where they could bring fighter planes and other planes
in with materiel. We held that position until the end of
the war. It was a very important strategic venture, but a
very costly one.
We were in every kind of situation: night fighting
and day fighting. I've seen enough Zeroes to last me for-
ever and then some. But it was an experience that you
can't possibly measure because it affects your sense of
values and your sense of how good life is.
GOODWIN: You never got to China?
SHEETS: I never got to China. It's incredible. The reason
I finally came back was on a temporary junket to New York.
There was so much political chicanery going on out there,
and we knew by the grapevine that [General Joseph W.]
Stilwell was going to be fired. That group of correspon-
dents— and that didn't include people like me; it included
really great foreign correspondents who had spent their
lives in the area and knew everything about the history
and the culture of the country — they knew the position
that Stilwell occupied. He was born in China, he had a
great feeling about China, and he was very hep to the fact
that Chiang Kai-shek wasn't really fighting the war, but
was saving all the materiel and his men to fight the
Communis ts--which maybe was a good idea, but nevertheless
it didn't fit into the scheme of things. It soon became
apparent toward the very end of my trip that [Stilwell]
was going to be demoted or fired. [phone rings; tape
recorder turned off] Arch [Archibald] Steele and Teddy
[Theodore] White and a whole group of men that distinguished
themselves certainly for their knowledge of the area and
the background and the history were terribly perturbed
about this demotion and felt that they had to get the
word to Washington. The British would not let anything
go out through censorship. No way. So finally I prevailed
upon my friend Lord Mountbatten, saying that I just had to
go back home. I needed to do some things, but I would come
right back. The British wrote up the most marvelous orders
for me to go home, and I was the only one allowed to go.
Needless to say, I spent a lot of time with the correspon-
dents to put the story together properly, through their
eyes and their background and their knowledge, and I took
I had an incredible trip back to the United States,
expecting fully to return, but due to the circumstances it
was never possible. But the trip, I'll briefly touch on.
I went down to Delhi to wait my turn, and there were long,
long lines of fellows who had orders to leave as they were
due for a return for one reason or another. It would take
anywhere from two to seven or eight days to get on a plane.
In those days the C-54 was the biggest thing afloat, and
they didn't carry more than about forty passengers.
While I was down there, I ran into Colonel Wurl , a
man who I had flown many, many bombing missions with, a
wonderful guy. I met him in the lunchroom, and he said,
"What are you doing?" I said, "I'm going home." He said,
"Well, so am I. I'm taking a famous airplane back. We're
going to use it in the United States. All my men have
completed their missions. I've got a catch-up crew. It
isn't my regular crew, but it's a group of different people
that are ready to go back. Why don't you go with us?
We're going to have a Cook's tour. We're going to go to
the Holy Land"--which is now, of course, Israel--"we ' re
going to Egypt, we're going to go over the battlefields of
North Africa, and then we're going to head down, cross the
Atlantic to South America and get back to the United States."
Well, I had made a date with my wife as to when I'd get home;
the date had been made in the most difficult way because you
couldn't put a date in the letter. You couldn't say any-
thing about when or where you'd be arriving. But by piecing
a bunch of things together in about ten letters, I figured
that she would get the idea that I wanted her to meet me in
New York, because I had no thought that I could get back to
California at all. I was going to be in New York briefly
and then return to India. So in talking with him I found
out that they figured out it would take about so long, and
maybe if everything was right, I would be two or three days
late. But even that gamble bothered me because I knew she
was coming across country on the train and that things were
going to be tough. We were pretty darn broke because the
salary in those days was so little.
GOODWIN: What was it?
SHEETS: By comparison. Oh, goodness, I made so much more
on my own than I could make as a correspondent for Life
magazine. We had just built a huge house, and we had all
sorts of obligations, four kids, and the problems were
very, very complicated. So finally I said, "Well, Colonel,
I just know how exciting it would be." I said, "I'd rather
do it than anything in the world, but I can't do it because
I have to be back." (I didn't mention my wife, because you
didn't in those days. You know that kind of a situation.)
I said, "I'll gamble to this extent: I know I can get to
Karachi in a couple of days, according to my orders, and
if I'm still in Karachi when you get there"— they were
completely fixing up this airplane, working on the motors—
"I'll go with you happily, believe me. Otherwise, I'll have
to go on . "
In those days, the only way you could get home, unless
you were a general or something very close to a general or
a very high diplomatic person, you went into Karachi and
then you went down through central Africa and across to
South America and up. Only a few people went the northern
route: Tripoli to Casablanca, the Azores, and then across.
So knowing this, I got to Karachi, and I was there when the
first B-29s arrived, which was a tremendous experience. Oh
my God, it was unbelievable. The husband of Amelia Earhart,
George Putnam, was the PR officer for that group, and we
were friends. He woke me up in the middle of the night one
night, saying, "What are you doing here?" I went out and
went all through the B-29s and had an exciting morning there,
I was set to go on a C-54 at three o'clock in the afternoon.
At one o'clock in the afternoon. Colonel Wurl flew in. I
was both happy and unhappy at the same moment. Of course
I wasn't worried about my passage because there were at
least 150 guys waiting for a no-show. So when I went over
and checked out at the counter and told them that I was
going with my friend Colonel Wurl they were delighted.
Well, we took off, and it was a long flight. We went
up first to Abadan, and that's the first place I'd ever
seen Russian fliers. We were turning over planes like mad
to the Russians, and they had their camp all covered with
barbed wire, and everything was black. They would dive in
like they were crazy, out around the field, and our guys
were supposed to fly straight and level. There was a lot
of feeling there. But it was an interesting experience.
It was 120 [degrees] in the shade. They said that was
really cooling off. It had been about 160 there.
We left the next day, and it was so exciting. We
landed at Tel Aviv, where we immediately rented a car and
a driver and went up to Jerusalem. We spent two days in
Jerusalem, which was a fantastic experience. You couldn't
believe how beautiful it was. We went to Bethlehem, and
we saw everything. There was no strife, no Arabs to keep
you from crossing lines. We had a marvelous trip.
I remember one incredible incident. We had a very
nice guy, a most devout Catholic boy from Minnesota. He
was a great big gunner, a huge guy. When we went to the
famous church where Christ was born, which was built right
over the crypt, we got down there, and it seems that the
crypt is used constantly all day and a good part of the
night with different kinds of church services, different
religions of the world. At this time, a group of Greek
Orthodox priests were there, and they were throwing these
things around, making smoke signals and chanting and what-
not. This young guy who was such a devout Catholic [laughter]
kept getting a little closer and a little closer, and finally
with his hobnails on the top step, his feet slid out from
under him and he went right down those steps absolutely flat
on his back, lying right underneath the whole ceremony. He
was so mortified, he just thought that he had to kill him-
self. He couldn't stand it, it hurt him so much. He just
couldn't believe it. We had the worst time with that guy.
It was worse than during the war, trying to get him to think
that he was not going to be eternally damned.
We left there and went to Egypt, where we had two
beautiful days. Then we took off at dawn to fly the battle-
fields of North Africa. Stuff was still smoking, a lot of
it, as it had been less than two or three weeks before that
the British had finally whipped the Germans. There were
tanks and trucks and buildings. We flew at 400 or 500
feet, and had an absolutely Cook's tour of the area.
Then finally, after going by Tobruk and all of those
places for hours, it seemed like, we took off right across
the Mediterranean toward Tripoli. At that time the Germans
were still coming down with their fighters and sweeping the
Mediterranean, just with ease. They didn't have anything
to keep them from doing it. We were a little bit skittish
about that area. But we were flying along there, straight
and level, and I was sound asleep in the waist, when all
the bells went off, the jingle, jangle stuff. I sat up and
picked up the intercom immediately and listened, and looked
out when I heard them say our outboard motor on the left
side was on fire. God, I never saw such flame in my life.
Those Liberators are funny airplanes, anyway. It wasn't
over five minutes later that the inboard motor on the same
side caught fire. Well, the captain started asking questions,
issuing orders. He wanted to know where the nearest airfield
was. He wanted a lot of things, and he told different guys
to do different things. It was really incredible to listen
to all this, to hear how these people can think, and this
guy Colonel Wurl was something.
He found out that the nearest airfield was something
like 200 miles, right on the edge of a cliff on the
Mediterranean, but it was 200 miles just at a right angle
turn south. So we headed for it, and we were all ordered
to put on our Mae Wests and told that we might have to
jump any minute, because if the fire got any worse, the
whole plane might blow up. It wasn't a very easy 200
miles because they couldn't make very fast time. I think
it took over an hour, as a matter of fact, even though we
were very high when we started and were diving all the time.
Finally Wurl, about halfway, put the fire out by diving so
fast that he cut it down. [phone rings; tape recorder
turned off] We're diving very fast toward the coast, and
finally we can see it. I never believed we were ever going
to make that coast. I thought we were going to end up in
that water with the Mae Wests. But we made it. When he
came in to make a landing, he had his left wing straight
up, flying absolutely vertically. He came down and he got
within about— I don't know, it seemed like five feet, but
it was probably fifty feet from the ground when he just
flopped that wing down. And when he hit the ground, he
hit it so hard, by just the change in that maneuver and
everything else, that we bounced at least fifty feet high.
I didn't think anything would hang on the plane— of course,
everybody was strapped down. I think the second bounce was
twenty feet high. And the whole plane just shook.
Well, we went on down this little tiny fighter strip
that the Germans had used during the time when they were in
Africa, and it was probably not over 8 00 feet long. This
Liberator, with no controls, really, landed and hit that
thing, bounced these two or three times and then rolled
right on past the end of the runway into the desert into
the great sand dunes— bumpity, bumpity, bump. Finally we
came to an unbelievable stop. The colonel called out and
said, "Everyone report in. Are you all right?" Everyone
reported in by intercom. Nobody was hurt, but we were sure
shaken up. Finally Wurl said, "All right, let's get out of
this airplane. This is still not the safest place to be
because of those fires. We don't really know what's going
on." The bomb bay doors were jammed, and we had an awful
time getting them open. The only way out of those Liberators
was to go down through the bomb bay doors, which are about
two and a half feet from the ground.
We're just crawling out from under this thing, when
down the runway— and it was a good, big quarter of a mile
away— came a jeep going like a bat out of hell with a guy
with a bullhorn saying, "Don't move, don't move. The whole
area is mined." The British had mined it to keep the
Germans from coming in there. To cut a long story short,
it took three hours for them to come out with mine detectors,
clearing a very funny path. Finally they got to us, and they
walked us out one at a time through that whole minefield.
How we ever went through that minefield without blowing it
it up is just miraculous. The Tommies couldn't understand
it; there was no way they could explain it.
So we get back finally to these three little dumb tents
that were there, and by this time the wind has come up. It
was weird, really weird. The last part of that walk, I
couldn't see anything below my knees. The sand was shifting
so fast that it was like walking in water. No dust or any-
thing above the knees, but just this weird feeling of the
whole desert moving under you. You can't believe it. We
got up to this little tent, and Colonel Wurl checked in
with the commanding officer and told him who he was and
said, "I've got to get a message immediately to Cairo that
we're down." The officer said, "Well, I can send that kind
of a message," which he did. Then I said, "Well, I'm not
really attached to this plane, and I have to get out of
here. Can I send a message?" He said, "No personal mes-
sages whatsoever." I said, "Well, this isn't a personal
message. I have orders." He said, "No, no way." I said,
"Where's the nearest railroad? Where's the nearest auto-
mobile road?" He started to laugh and said the nearest
railroad is 175 miles through solid desert, the automobile
road is 125. "Right out there is the marble arch that
Mussolini built to celebrate his victory over Ethiopia.
But that road doesn't go anywhere, and it doesn't come any-
where. There it is." He said, "An airplane comes in here
every two weeks to bring us supplies, but they were here
the day before yesterday."
Well, I remember taking a cup of tea and walking out
behind this tent and sitting on the ground, with this sand
moving, and damn near bawling. I just thought of all the
dumb things to have gotten myself into, I don't know what
I'm going to do about that poor gal. She'd be there, in
New York, in something like forty hours from then. I've
never been so low. About that time I heard an airplane
going overhead very high. It was an American DC-3 that
had been turned over to the British in Tripoli, and it
was on its way to Cairo. It was up about 10,000 feet.
And I never looked at anything so longingly in my life. It
went right over the field and just kept right on going and
finally disappeared out of sight.
Then all of a sudden I heard the funny kind of back-
firing and funny popping that some airplanes make when they
land. I looked up, and here this DC-3 had turned around and
had quietly come back and was landing on the field. The
reason it was landing was that the captain or the young
lieutenant flying the airplane had a cousin who was standing
watch on this field, one of the eleven men there, and he
thought it would be nice to just say hi. He hadn't seen
him in a long time, so he came down to get a cup of tea.
Well, he came in and he knew enough to land short, and he
and his copilot came up for a cup of tea. Of course, as
soon as they got over hugging each other, I told him who
I was, showed him my credentials, and I said, "I'm des-
perately anxious to get back to anyplace where I can get
a plane to the United States." He said, "That's Cairo;
that's where we're going. There's no stop in between."
Well, I had been told I should never get separated
from my gear, and I had a metal box with all my paintings,
all my drawings for a year in it, and it weighed over 250
pounds, and I had my own personal stuff as well. I swallowed
real hard and told him I had this big box, and he said, "I
don't care if it weighs a ton. We've got an empty ship.
NO problem." So he sent the guys out with their mine
detectors and a little kind of a funny trucking thing rhey
had, and by golly, they get my box, and they brought it
back with my suitcase. After being on the ground for two
hours, counting the walks that I made through the minefield,
I'm on an airplane headed for Cairo, which was over 1,000
miles back, headed east.
So at four o'clock in the afternoon, I arrived back at
the place that I had left at dawn. I walked up to an officer
at the desk, and he said, "What the hell are you doing here?"
I said, "Well, I'm here first to report the fact that Colonel
Wurl is desperate: the plane is down, he needs motors, and
equipment to get the plane rebuilt or whatever has to be
done." So I got all that off my chest, and the British
sent a plane out early the next morning with everything
that they needed to work with. In the meantime, the Tommies
started clearing the minefield. They'd get a jeep and pull
the mines out. Our men were down for about ten days, but
they finally got out. I had promised, of course, to call
Mrs. Wurl and the families of everybody else who was in
the plane, which I did when I got to New York. But in the
meantime the officer said, "Now, what about you?" I said,
"My orders are to go as fast as I can to New York." He
said, "Well, let me see your priority." I had a priority
three, which wasn't very high, so he said, "Well, Mr. Sheets,
you haven't got a prayer of going that way. You've got to
go clear back to Karachi, India." Karachi, India was at
least two days of solid flying. I said, "There's no way
I can go to Karachi, India. I've got to be in New York —
it's a desperate problem, and it's secret." He said,
"There's no way." He said, "I don't know even when I can
get you back to Karachi. We've got people stacked up here
a mile high with credentials one and two, and generally we
only take ones on this route, which means generals or top
diplomats." Well, to cut a long story short, I suddenly
remembered that a general friend of mine had said before
I left, "Millard, I'm going to give you a very special
letter, and if you get in a jam, use it, no matter what."
GOODWIN: And you were in a jam. [laughter]
SHEETS: I'd never read that letter. I opened it up, and
there were ten copies, army fashion, signed by the coirjnanding
general of the American supply forces. Well, when I read
the letter, I nearly flipped. It said, "No matter what the
situation is, expedite in every possible way Mr. Sheets 's
return to the United States and then his return back to
India." Well, you can't ask for more than that, so the
officer said, "Well, this beats anything I've ever heard
of. How soon could you leave?" I said, "I'm ready." He
said, "There's a plane out on the ramp right now and
there's a no-show. Have you had anything to eat?" I said,
"No, I haven't had anything to eat all day." He said,
"Well, I'll see that something is put aboard." So in eight
minutes I'm on a plane, with my big box, which he even put
on, and I'm headed for Casablanca.
We landed in Tripoli, then we flew on to Casablanca
getting in there about two or three o'clock in the morning.
As we're getting off, I can hear these guys droning out,
"Let me see your card priority." Then they'd say, "One or
two," and they'd stamp it and say, "Well, call us in ten
days." There were dozens of people backlogged in Casablanca
on ones and twos. I could just hear what they were going
to say to me with a three, so I got down to the gate where
an officer looks at my card. He takes one look at it and
says, "My God, how did you ever get here on this plane?"
I said, "Well, it's a long story, but I'm here." He said,
"You'll never get out of here. You've got to go back to
India. There's no way you can go from here back to the
United States." I said, "Well, we'll talk about it tomorrow."
So he gave me a billet order downtown, which would be like
forty minutes by taxi. So I saw that my stuff was unloaded,
and I very carefully hid out until all of the people had
left, the whole bunch of them had all gone to town. Then
I went out to where they said the executive officer was
for the night. His noncom sergeant asked what I wanted
and I said, "I want to see the executive officer." He
said, "Well, he's not here." I said, "Well, it's important
that I find him. Where is he?" And he said, "He's way down
near that hanger." I said, "Thank you," and walked down to
the hangar and found him.
So I pulled out my letter, copy number two. The first
man had kept number one. He read the letter, and he said,
"Oh, do you know what this does to me? There are 150 men
that sleep out here every night, all day, all night, just
waiting for one no-show. I've got a no-show on a plane
that's going to leave in thirty minutes, but they would
tear me from limb to limb if I put you on that airplane,
if I go through the routine." I said, "Well, what's the
unroutine?" He said, "Well, according to this letter it's
got to be unroutine. I've got to get you on there. The
only way to do it is for you to stay here. Where's your
gear?" Then I swallowed real hard and told him all about
that heavy box. "Oh," he groaned, "they'll never take that
kind of weight." But he said, "You stay here, and I'll get
a jeep, and in the last minute I'll load you but remember,
if that no-show shows up, then you're out. It's leaving
within thirty minutes."
So I waited. Everybody was loaded on the airplane.
A guy came down with a jeep, drove me right up. I climbed
up this little ladder, and my bags were on board~I could
see them. I very gratefully went over and sat down on one
of them. The same exec came on board and said, "Now remem-
ber, until that door is locked and the plane's motor starts,
you'll still have to get out." I thought those motors would
never start, and finally they locked the door and the motors
hadn't started, when I heard this bang, bang, bang on the
door, and I knew what it was. The door opened up, and a
guy comes in. I knew he was heading for me. He came right
to me and he said, "The captain will not take that extra
weight. It's either you or the box. You can go or the
box can go." I said, "Well, I've got to go, but would you
really understand how important that box is, because it's
a year's work, and it's necessary it gets there as soon as
possible." He said, "I can't promise you anything about
when it will get there, but I will personally see to it
that it's taken care of and it will get on the first chance.
But every plane going out of here is overloaded."
So with that we took off. I thought, boy, I'm going
back no matter what. And as it turned out, we landed in
the Azores, flew on to New York, landed, got out of hock,
and I took a taxi downtown. I had stayed off and on for
years in the old Barbizon Plaza up on Fifty-seventh Street
and Fifth Avenue. I went to this hotel, with all the con-
fidence in the world, and didn't realize that rooms were
just not available. But getting there at four o'clock in
the morning, they must have had a short-time room because
they had a room for me. I walked into my room, picked up
the telephone, called California and found that Mary was in
Maryland with her brother, where she had arrived a few days
before. She was supposed to arrive in New York the after-
noon of that morning. So, I was on time.
I got ahold of her, and she came up to New York by
train. And it was really an incredible meeting. She
hadn't been in that room with me more than about two hours
when the telephone rang and it was the airport calling to
say, "We've got some gear out here. You'd better come and
pick it up." That's how fast that good guy back in
Casablanca operated. Well, then the last part of the story
I'll tell very quickly, if there's any tape left.
GOODWIN: A few minutes.
SHEETS: [Henry] Luce had a big luncheon for me to give my
report on what was happening in India and China. No one
on the entire Time-Life staff would believe a word I said.
I explained that this was not my story, but the story of
the correspondents, including a lot of Life people. They
heckled me from twelve noon until seven o'clock that night.
And finally Mr. Luce, who was very nice, said, "Well,
Millard, I think you ought to go back to California and
get a rest." They thought I was touched.
I came back to California, and I'd been back about
two weeks when six correspondents came back to New York
and the story really broke. But I didn't know that. I
was called by James Flannery, who was at that time head
of the news for CBS for the West Coast. He said, "We
understand that there's a very tough situation, that
General Stilwell may be demoted, may be brought out. I
understand that you've just been home two weeks and that
you know a great deal about it. Would you do a program
with me? There's a five o'clock newscast which we send
to South America and Canada and all over the United States."
I said, "I would be glad to do it, but I know that you
wouldn't want to do it when I tell you the facts." He
said, "Come in and have lunch with me."
So I went in and had lunch with him and I told him the
whole story. He was dismayed and could hardly believe it
himself. We talked, I guess, till two or two-thirty. We
went back to CBS. It was raining very hard and I had left
my overcoat in his office. I went up to get it, and on the
way past the ticker room, he just grabbed a whole bunch of
ticker tapes and walked on in with me while I got my coat
on. He said, "Wait a minute, read this." It told about
these five correspondents that had returned. They just
forced the British to let them out, and they had broken
the whole story, and here it was. He said, "My God, are
we on time. This is perfect. We'll play it close to the
belt and do a tremendous job."
So we went on the air for forty-five minutes, and I
told the facts just the way they were. We went out and
had a quick drink, and I drove back to Claremont, which
took another hour and a half in those days with no free-
ways. When I arrived in Claremont, my wife said, "There's
a telephone call for you from New York. It was the head
of all the correspondents for Time-Life, a fellow that I'd
done a great deal of work with in Fortune in the early
days, Dave Hulburd [David W. Hulburd, Jr.]. So I called
him, and he said, "Millard, are you out of your cotton-
picking mind?" He said, "What in the hell happened to you
this afternoon? Why would you do such a thing?" He said,
"You know that your story wasn't accepted." I said, "I
know it wasn't, Dave, but," I said, "I also saw the ticker
tapes when they came in that so-and-so and so-and-so" —
and these were all top correspondents — "had been back and
broken the story." "Well," he said, "you don't know the
half of it. The instant that we had that information we
had a White House command that not one word would go out
on the air or in the press. You did it. There hasn't
been one word that has come out of this thing. You are
ordered to stay in your home." I said, "I'm not ordered
to stay in my home, period. I am no longer working for
Life magazine, if that's the case." He said, "It's a
White House order." I said, "It will have to be a different
colored house because I'm not going to stay in my home at
Well, it turned out that two days later, they couldn't
hold those correspondents down. The story got out and into
the press, and it was a mess. But that was a pretty dis-
couraging moment when I realized that our news was controlled
to that degree. Anyway, I heard no more about the whole
affair from Life. I went on and I finished up some work
for Life, [laughter] and they had my full issue of all the
war paintings I had done, that were coming out. The plates
were made, they were starting to print, and the armistice
was signed. So of course they immediately changed the
whole magazine, and my war paintings were never published.
But they did publish several other articles with my things,
so I was never shortchanged on that side of it. It was an
exciting experience, but I was glad when it was over.
TAPE NUMBER: VI, SIDE ONE
DECEMBER 13, 197 6
GOODWIN: Last session was devoted to a full discussion of
World War II. Now we're going to backstep a bit and dis-
cuss Mr. Sheets 's involvement with the Los Angeles County
Fair— we already discussed the very beginning-
beginning as a employee of the county in 1931 and con-
tinuing until 1958. What were your various responsibilities
at the fair, and how were they organized?
SHEETS: George, as I explained to you, Theodore B. Modra
was a very unusual man, bringing an extraordinary amount
of background about American artists, knowing, as I told
you, people like Bellows and Henri so intimately. After
he had allowed me to come to his studio month after month
for criticism and really to stimulate me into working out-
doors, by the time I was maybe sixteen, he asked me to be
his assistant at the L.A. County Fair art exhibit. By this
time, he had a nice wooden building; it was no longer a
tent. He had an L-shaped building that he had designed.
One side of it was for crafts, and Leta Horlocker ran that
side and ran it very well. It did run a little bit toward
sentimental china painting, but basically it was a good
exhibit of needlework, weaving and ceramics. It was the
beginning of the growth of these crafts and this variety
of media in this area. I think the County Fair did a lot
to stimulate the colleges and individual artists to do
these things seriously. The old idea that they were
"minor" arts and not very serious, as against "fine" arts,
was an idea that Mr. Modra was very determined about in his
attitude. He felt that that should be broken down, and he
certainly did everything he could to do it. We had good
prizes, good juries, and the show grew gradually.
GOODWIN: Who could submit work?
SHEETS: Anyone from here in this state or even as far away
as Texas, if they had wanted to. We had many entries from
Arizona. There was no real limitation to the entries. In
the beginning, however, I would say 90 percent came from
just the Southern California area. Gradually it grew, and
we had entries from all over the state and, as I said, from
out of state. I learned a great deal: first, how juries
were handled, and of course I spent most of my time physically
carrying pictures, hanging pictures, putting wire on paintings,
building pedestals for sculpture and all those things, which
was a great experience. I learned not only what had to be
done in an exhibit, but I learned to respect the whole jury
system. Modra was very tough about it. He had the best
people he could find come for juries in those days. I'm
not even sure that they received any compensation. They
were artists selected very carefully, which meant that if
they exhibited they were not in competition. I remember
very clearly that I was impressed with this, though I made
probably forty cents an hour. They would drive out from
Los Angeles and various places when they agreed to serve.
[Modra] died very suddenly, when I believe I was not
more than twenty or twenty-one. I guess I might have been
twenty-one. The fair board, to my surprise, asked me to
become the director of the show. I ran the show for two
or possibly three years in the same building that Mr.
Modra had built. But by this time I was able to get up a
great deal of excitement about the show. I'd increased
the budgets considerably, and I persuaded the fair to
build a new building. I should explain to you that this
was not really a county operation. Though the county was
associated and it had the name of the Los Angeles County
Fair and the county gave certain funds each year, it was
a grant rather than anything that they operated through
civil service. It was a private corporation, which, I
think I told you, my uncle Lewis Sheets started. It
worked very closely in harmony with Los Angeles. We used
to use the old Otis Art Institute as the headquarters to
receive paintings after I started the larger shows, when
I had our jury meetings in Los Angeles. We were very
closely related and in a very happy way. But the show
was a separate and independent organization. In the early
thirties we built the new building, and slowly, through
the years, as the fair became more pleased with the
exhibition, we were given more attention and publicity
by the press, which of course meant something to the
administrators of the fair.
GOODWIN: What was the essential purpose of the art show
at a county fair?
SHEETS: Well, the thing that Mr. Modra started and I con-
tinued for the first few years was a very good annual show
for the artists of Southern California. It was a place
where they could display their best professional work. I
thought our show certainly was on a par with what was
occurring at this same time, the same type of exhibition,
at the Los Angeles County Museum. The L.A. County Museum
had one major show a year for the sculptors and painters
and a separate show for watercolor and graphics. We had
one show for all. We put our graphics into the same new
wing that had the crafts. But basically it was to en-
courage in every possible way what all the artists were
doing. We had substantial prizes. Most of them were not
purchase prizes in the early days but were cash prizes.
GOODWIN: How much were they?
SHEETS: I think that by 1932, even though it was the
Depression, I think we gave $500 as the major prize in
oil painting. I think it was $400 in watercolor. I
don't know why it should have been less, but it was.
Sculpture received $500. Then there were some honorable
mentions and I believe one or two second prizes. We did
make a few sales, which was very encouraging. But mainly
it was really a chance for artists to exhibit when there
were too few chances in those days.
Step by step, I brought various people in to assist
me. The first major assistant was Richard Petterson as
head of the crafts and that whole side of the exhibition—
which was considered by me certainly and by the fair as an
equally important adjunct. Though painting and sculpture
did perhaps get more publicity, we worked terribly hard on
the idea of having the finest jurors, the finest quality
in crafts, and began to give purchase prizes, as we did
eventually in painting. If I think of the whole twenty-
seven years that I was connected with the fair, I would
say that about ten years were devoted to this type of
exhibition, where we had good juries of acceptance, good
jurors for awards, and out of that period—probably six
or seven years— we gave purchase prizes that got up to
some substantial amounts, like $1,500 or even $2,000 at
By this time we attracted works nationally. The
last two years we had a major show of painting and
sculpture. I had a jury meet in New York, and I went
back to meet with it. We gave the jurors an allotted
number to choose, and we brought those paintings and
pieces of sculpture from New York out here at the L.A.
County Fair's expense. We had a similar jury in Chicago.
At the same time, we would have a similar jury which.
every two years, we alternated between San Francisco and
Southern California. Then we would put the combined
California and national shows together. I would bring
the chairman of each jury from the East, plus two or three
members from California, to serve on the jury of awards.
I think that on the last year of that exhibition we gave
in the neighborhood of about $25,000 in major prizes, both
purchase and cash prizes. We had a very interesting col-
lection by the end of this time.
GOODWIN: Where was it housed?
SHEETS: It was housed at the county fair. We loaned the
pieces, because it became a very nice exhibit, really. We
loaned them to colleges and to small community museums.
It was about this time that there was a great deal of
ferment, particularly amongst amateur artists who felt that
the show was professional and that they didn't have an
opportunity to exhibit. So we started an amateur show in
the domestic arts building, which was a very, very large
building. The fair gave a substantial number of prizes
and so forth and the opportunity for amateurs in painting
and sculpture and everything from bedspreads to whatnot
to show their works. It was an amazing big building filled
with the kind of things that amateurs make. Some of them
were very exciting. I used to buy things quite often out
of that just because they were examples of beautiful
handicrafts. However, the professional exhibition became
more and more separated from the general knowledge of the
public. Each year the prizes seemed to dismay more and
more of the public, not merely the fair board, but the
public itself. We used to have approximately 500,000
people go through our exhibition in seventeen days. It
was an extraordinary attendance.
GOODWIN: Wow! Did they have to pay to get in?
SHEETS: Oh, no, there was no pay at all. It was a very
beautiful building in the sense that it was properly
designed for the kind of people we had to handle. We
had excellent lighting and I think we hung the shows
well. Then the war came. I believe that it was for two
years the county fair was dark. I believe it was on the
third year of the war, or perhaps the fourth, that they
I had just come back from India, my war service (it
must have been the first September after the end of the
war, whenever that was) , and I thought it would be an
interesting thing to change the, format. Instead of
having a typical exhibition of oils, watercolors, sculp-
tures and so forth, I conceived the idea of an exhibition
which I titled "One World of Art." I had something of a
problem to explain this to the board because I knew that
it would require a large step upward in the cost, in the
budget itself. I thought that it would be interesting to
bring together examples of most of the world's greatest
cultures of the last, let's say, 400 years. We couldn't
obviously, get into everything, but we did go back, I
think, in a few instances to older cultures. I felt that
with a world that was so muddled with hatreds and fears
and all the things that go with war, that it was the right
time to show that Japan, for example, had a fantastic cul-
tural heritage, that Germany had, that Italy, of course,
had. I thought it would be very, very exciting to try and
get the finest examples I could from all these different
cultures that made up the people who really were involved
in World War II. So after much talk and some debate — they
were good enough to let me come to the board meetings; I
didn't have to go through some administrator — I was able
to sit down and talk with the whole board. I did persuade
them that it was a worthwhile thing and they finally agreed,
Then the problem was to not only select the works but to
get them here safely and get them back safely. I borrowed
things from the Metropolitan Museum; I borrowed one thing
from the Louvre, one thing from. the British Museum, many
things from other American museums. I borrowed one of the
most fantastic pieces of sculpture from India, one of the
greatest stone torsos I've ever known, from the Honolulu
Academy of Art. They own it still as one of their prized
possessions, we had that. We had marvelous, great seven-
teenth-century paintings from Germany. We had beautiful
Italian, Spanish, French, English, American examples.
GOODWIN: Weren't the museums, both foreign and domestic,
reluctant to loan their work because of security?
SHEETS: George, in those days it was very different than
it is today. First of all, there were not even slightly
as many demands from one museum to another. The number of
museums that would pay the expense of insurance and the
cost of shipping and whatnot, though those expenses were
clearly nothing as compared to today — it just wasn't the
common thing to do, particularly coming from far east to
far west and across the sea. I was fortunate that I knew
people at the Metropolitan and other museums and had been
on juries where I'd met many of these people. We were
just lucky because I know that you couldn't do this thing
today. I'm absolutely confident of it, between the danger
of accident and the carelessness of handling things today.
We used to send a box with assurance on Railway Express,
for example--this was long before any real air freight —
and it came undamaged. Today it just isn't that safe.
Today you're better off to rent a truck and put it on
board and have your own driver and take it across the
country. But in those days it was much safer, and the
museums were much more willing. I've seen that slowly
change. Well, it's changed steadily from those days,
from that year on, even. While I was still at the county
fair, you could see it change. So we were lucky and were
able to do it, and to do it with great examples. Somewhere
I have a catalog, which I'd love to show you.
GOODWIN: I've seen it.
SHEETS: Oh, have you?
GOODWIN: Some of these are in the UCLA Art Library.
SHEETS: Oh, good. So anyway, we enjoyed it, and it was so
exciting to have a preview that created as much furor as this
did, because there were a lot of people who resented the
SHEETS: Well, human nature. You are taught to hate some-
body for three or four or five years while you are at war
with them, and then somebody says, "Gee, isn't this great?
It's Japanese." Or, "It's German." You or I don't feel or
think or would never, I'm sure, be caught in this trap. But
humanity is a very funny thing, in my opinion. It doesn't
take too much propaganda on either side to get people to
hate quite easily. I was surprised that we were even
slightly picketed, not seriously. There were people who
even wrote some very unhappy articles about what business
did we have showing these things — these were our enemies.
Well, we were at peace. At least the war had ended.
But on tlie other hand, I remember so distinctly — and
this of course would probably still offend a great many
people — our then-governor, who later became chief justice,
[Earl] Warren, was terribly excited about this exhibit. I
wrote to him, knowing that he always came down to the fair
on the opening day, which was customary in those days.
Perhaps it is now — I don't know--but the governor always
came to open the L.A. County Fair officially, as he did
the state fair. The state fair actually was a big fair,
but ours was always the largest county fair in the world.
We always had well over a million in attendance, which, I
suppose, wouldn't mean much today, but in those days, it
was a lot of people. So I wrote to Governor Warren and
told him what we were doing, and he telephoned me almost
immediately and said that he was quite interested in the
idea. In my letter I asked him if he would consider doing
a walk-through with me for television. They had asked me
to do one. I thought it would be particularly wonderful
if he would be willing to do it. He telephoned me and
said that he would be most interested in seeing the
exhibition, that after seeing it he would discuss with me
whether he would do the TV or not. He caime down two days
ahead, instead of the normal day ahead, and walked through
the exhibition with great enthusiasm and said, "I don't
pretend to know about art, but I do believe I understand
what you're trying to accomplish." So CBS did a one-hour
show on television. In those days you had to drag cables
that were bigger around than lampposts, it seemed to me.
I've never seen so many lines in my life. The 500 dis-
tinguished guests that we had asked to come to the opening
were really literally standing on the steps while we did
this program, and it was slightly uncomfortable to be doing
this thing while they were outside. Then we had to clear
the material afterwards before the guests could come in.
But it was a great experience to me to walk through that
exhibition with Governor Warren. He was the most respon-
sive person. He tried really to get into every single
piece, and to have me explain why it intrigued me. It
was a most pleasant experience, and we did get a tremendous
reception from the thing in terms of television. It was
very early television--there weren't too many people who
had sets in those days — but it was great.
GOODWIN: Was there a large public response to the show?
SHEETS: That's what I meant. There was an amazing public
response. We never had more people ever come to an exhi-
bition. They just absolutely mobbed us. It was worthwhile,
GOODWIN: I saw that Arthur Millier helped you on the
catalog. He wrote some of the text.
SHEETS: Yes, I don't know how many catalogs Arthur wrote
for us, but I would say in the last perhaps six or seven
years of the show he wrote most of the catalogs. He was
tremendously interested in the idea of what had been Mr.
Theodore B. Modra ' s slogan, "bringing art to the people."
That was his slogan, which I think we all adhered to,
really. This was no high-hat show. If people came through
with five kids pushing a baby cart, this is what we wanted,
to expose them to the best that we could. Arthur was the
kind of critic that really cared about people and tried to
educate them. He wasn't the kind that we sometimes have
today who sits in a special little world of his own, being
somewhat snobbish about the world. He was very devoted to
this show. It was great for us because he always had a way
of saying things that seemed to appeal to people.
GOODWIN: We haven't spoken about Millier before. How long
had you known him?
SHEETS: Well, ever since he became an art critic, I guess,
is the only answer to that, which must have been about 1929.
The critic before him who retired had used Arthur as kind of
a protege once in a while. When Arthur began to write, it
was just at the time that I was getting started. So we were
really thrown together, I believe, in '28 and '29. With my
having won those prizes and having my first exhibition, he
was extremely generous toward me because of my youth and
because I was getting started. I've always thought that
Arthur was probably more helpful to more artists than any
other single person in Southern California. Not merely by
being nice — he wasn't always nice — he used to really tear
you apart on occasions if he felt like it, but he was very
sincere. He took time to try to figure out what you were
trying to get at, instead of imposing his own personal
taste on everything that you did. I know of dozens of
artists that I grew up with who feel the same way about
Arthur Millier. He was a marvelous catalyst between what
they were trying to do and the public . I know that he had
a tremendous influence on my life. Not that he told me
what to paint — I don't mean that kind of an influence —
but the fact that he gave me a voice in the public sense,
which worked in hundreds of ways, not only as a critic of
my painting, but by assisting me at the fair, lecturing in
the colleges on occasion and helping me bring people to the
West — for various reasons. Whether it was for a jury or
whether it was to speak or to do a commission, he was
always in there, really working for the good of the artist.
And this is what a critic, I think, should be.
GOODWIN: Did he have any particular causes or champion any
SHEETS: No, and I thought that he was extremely catholic
in his taste for that period. Now, if you remember, this
is before a lot of the isms that followed. Though he did
his own etchings and drawings and watercolor painting, he
was tremendously behind the abstract painter and the
expressionistic painter. He had a feeling about the whole
development of modern art through impressionism and into
postimpressionism and cubism and whatnot. This was his
area, and he knew these things well and had a great love
and affection, which he expressed in his writing. As we've
discussed before, he didn't talk about art as though he
knew all about it but didn't like it. He talked about it
in the sense that he truly believed in the importance of
it. I know time after time he really put people in front
of the public, gave them an opportunity that lots of critics
just don't seem to have any feeling about today at all.
I think the fair show following "One World of Art"
was "5,000 Years of Art in Clay." That was one of the most
interesting shows because in this particular instance we
eliminated all of the crafts except the ceramic. Of course,
we started with the most ancient examples that I could get.
I went again to the Metropolitan and to some of the great
museums of this country and was able to borrow incredible
objects from Egypt, from the Middle East, from Greece, Rome,
Etruscan, and coming on down through every facet of European
and Chinese and Asiatic cultures. It was a great exhibit.
I included in the exhibit some of the disciplines in con-
temporary industry, showing the way things are actually
produced in clay. By photograph and with objects and what-
not, we had enough realism in this area, along with the art
objects, to give people a sense of how important clay is in
daily life as well as its being a highly creative, expressive
material, creatively and aesthetically.
GOODWIN: I notice there were 670 pieces in that show, so
it was a big, big show.
SHEETS: It was a big show. That allowed us then to go
right into the whole craft side, the other end of the
buildings, with a major show of contemporary ceramics,
national as well as lots of things borrowed from Japan
that were contemporary. So all in all, I've always thought
that was one of the really good shows we put on, and I've
always thought that the catalog was expressive of the fact
that we enjoyed it in every way.
For the following exhibition, we collaborated with
House Beautiful magazine. I went East and persuaded the
editor of the magazine, Elizabeth Gordon, to agree that we
invite some ten designers that the editors of House Beautiful
and I agreed upon to design very special rooms, sometimes a
suite of rooms. We actually built these rooms completely
within the art gallery. Again, we used the whole enormous
building. That building was over 300 feet long and 100 feet
wide. It was just a series of marvelous spaces. We had a
combination very often of architect, interior decorator,
and artist working together on projects to do creative
things within each of these rooms. They also produced the
finest furniture, the finest fabrics, the finest everything
that we could get, with the idea then that House Beautiful
would do a major issue on the exhibition. Well, they were
really impressed when they finally came out to California
when the show was virtually complete. They were very much
interested in the final installation and so forth. They
brought about six people on their staff out here, their
decorators and writers. They were so impressed, they
eventually did two issues: one very large issue, and the
second issue had a very good article. There were marvelous
photographs, reproductions of the rooms and so forth. Of
course, that made a tremendous hit, because every woman
in the world looked at House Beautiful in those days.
That show was also well attended; in fact, all of those
GOODWIN: The basic point of that show was that any room
could be designed as a work of art?
SHEETS: Every room should have a presence. Every room
should have a feeling of good sense and good planning and
function, but also have a real quality of color and atmos-
phere. Works of art could be assimilated, not merely as
something stuck on a pedestal or something hung on a wall,
but as an integral part. We had a great deal of work that
was actually done just for that room, specifically designed
and executed in sculpture and in painting. There were small
murals. There were special titles. It's hard to remember
the number of projects we had, and I think there were at
least thirty artists.
GOODWIN: According to my notes, there were sixteen rooms
in the show.
SHEETS: That's about right, and I think there were at
least thirty artists working for months on this project
in collaboration with the other people. The fair paid the
expense of the whole thing. I don't mean that the artists
were paid—in most instances they were not, though a few
were. But it opened up great new vistas for certain
artists, just being exposed to this.
GOODWIN: Do you think the philosophy underlying that
exhibition has changed?
SHEETS: Well, I don't think the philosophy has changed,
because unfortunately it was not the philosophy at the
time. The problem was and is that decorators and archi-
tects too often are more apt, if they wish to include art,
to search around so they can find something they like.
They seem to be somewhat dubious about sitting down with
an artist and having the artist have a say in the develop-
ment of the plan. I think the artists are as much at fault
as either the decorator or the architect, because unfor-
tunately artists are not trained, as part of their basic
education, to recognize the meaning of collaboration, the
excitement of collaboration—not only the discipline but
I think the responsibility of collaboration. I've spent
my life in this, so that's why I created this idea or
suggested this idea to the fair without any change of
philosophy. But unfortunately it wasn't at that time,
and it isn't today, the way it normally works, though
there are marvelous and exciting, rare exceptions. I know
architects who are fabulous with artists and artists who
are tremendously gifted and able to work with them. But
there hasn't been the emphasis in art education, and there
hasn't been the suggestion that artists should become more
and more interpreters and less and less egotists, until
they can work with whatever the problem is. I think that
unfortunately it hasn't changed — it just hasn't arrived
at that point yet.
GOODWIN: So it would be pretty difficult to do a similar
SHEETS: No, I think it wouldn't be difficult. I think I
could find today, easily, the number of people that I could
give the confidence to work with other people. It's like
breeding horses: you put the right mare and stallion
together and you're going to get a good horse. I'm sure
that it could be done. But unfortunately there aren't
enough middle people, enough middle men or middle women.
There aren't enough people, I should say, to care enough
about trying to blend these forces, and they're marvelous
forces, and they need each other desperately. They just
don't know how. They haven't been educated to appreciate
the need and the possibilities.
GOODWIN: What about the financial aspect of this problem?
SHEETS: That's pretty shocking, as far as that show was
concerned. Do you mean that show?
GOODWIN: Well, the implications of that show. Can middle-
class people afford quality art in their home?
SHEETS: Yes, I think so. I really think so. Certainly
American middle-class can without any question. This is
a part of the realism that must be faced by everyone. I
had an experience when I was called in by a very old friend
of mine just last Saturday to discuss fees for a very
special project that he had been asked to design for one
of our largest, most important corporations. He is one
of the finest ceramic designers that I know. I think he
has the finest taste, is the most skillful, the most
beautiful, beautiful person. He's a marvelous person.
I found out that what he really wanted to talk about, when
he and his charming wife invited me to lunch, was how you
arrive at a fee. He had done a job for a company in Japan,
and he had ended up really holding the short end of the
stick in a very unfortunate way because he hadn't been wise
in his contractual relationship. He simply hadn't been
thoughtful about it. I think he was a little bit dreamy-
eyed when he approached the problem, in his excitement
about going to Japan and doing the job. Well, he didn't
want to be burned twice, and I could understand his conster-
nation. But I was shocked at how little he had thought about
what would be a normal way to try and price a job of this
kind. He was trying to get from me, "Well, what do other
designers get, what has this type of operation or corpora-
tion paid before for this kind of thing?"
I said, "Forget what others have paid. Sit down and
honestly put down, let's say, the best three years' income
you've ever had. Take an average or take the top. Then
figure out how much of a year's time you anticipate this
will take. If it's a fourth"--which he thought it was —
I said, "all right, then put down as a base fee one-fourth.
Now add to that at least another 25 percent of that amount
for contingency, because you're going to go into extra time.
Then add what you think are the unusual expenses that you
are going to be involved with in studio help and other
things. Add to it the travel and per diem that you antici-
pate or make simply flat arrangements that they pay all
travel and per diem. Be very careful that if it means going
East, which it will, that you're paid on the days that you're
there and traveling because you're giving up your work here.
As much as you'd like to be just a nice guy, put it down.
And when you total that all up, be real brazen and add 25
percent to that as a reason to divert yourself from your
regular work." I said, "That is the kind of thing that I
think anybody could do without any mystery. And certainly
you can't then complain if it takes a little longer or if
you missed something, because it's a chance to serve. Then
put your emphasis not on how much you're going to get out
of this job, but how lucky they are to get you for this
price, and you're doing it mainly because you expect it to
be so successful that you will be asked at least once a year
to do such projects." Well, it just shook the hell out of
him to realize that it's nothing that he couldn't have
figured out himself, that there's no mystery about it.
GOODWIN: Doesn't it come out to be a pretty hefty amount?
SHEETS: I don't think so, no, because when I said 25 percent.
I wasn't talking about 25 percent of his time, I was talking
about 25 percent for contingency. That's the only safe
thing because suppose they sometimes don't like the first
two or three designs in their very preliminary state. All
right, you can't figure that close to the belt that you're
going to spend three months, when it may take five. So
that's where I add the 25 percent. Furthermore, if you
have an assured income and you're moving along in your own
world without pressure, you're entitled to some readjustment
time. As a designer, I know what this readjustment time
means. It means that you are getting out of your sphere.
You're entering a whole new set of relationships, human and
otherwise. You're meeting a lot of very important disciplines
that have to be mastered in addition to your regular work.
You can say, well, that's something you ought to just learn
on your own. But on the other hand, if you stay in your own
bailiwick, you don't need to worry about this, and you go on
in the regular way. So I think it was very sane. In fact,
I would say this: if he does that, according to the indica-
tion he made to me what his annual income is, I think he
will be below what he's really entitled to because of his
national importance as a designer. Not in the field that
he is being asked to enter, but in the field of his own
creative work, he is one of the very top people in the
country. I think they'd be lucky to get him for the price
that I figure, but I think he will feel that he's making a
very good step. The next job would be much clearer to him.
He'll be able to arrive at another figure.
GOODWIN: Well, if a big corporation has to pay a nice
salary for a top designer, what is the ordinary family
going to do in terms of getting advice?
SHEETS: It's a totally different thing when you're talking
about designing something of which they may sell between two
and three million dollars' worth. It's a totally different
problem than a neighbor or a friend or someone that just
happens to like your work who comes to you and suggests that
they would like to have you do a very special thing for their
house. That's something you do as a commission right along
with your regular work. You know what you get for this kind
of thing, and I don't think there has to be anything added.
That seems to be the normal way that the people work. At
least that's the way I've always worked. In fact, some of
the most exciting things have come out of that kind of
contact. You do it because somebody wants something, and
they really feel it. They like, it, and they have a special
problem. This happens so very many times. You get excited
about it, you do it, they get excited about it, they're
happy to show it to their friends, and pretty soon you're
besieged. The problem with artists is that they are too
reticent about wanting to get involved with anything off-
beat, other than just doing their work in their own way,
submitting it, and then the hell with it. That's wrong.
Because artists really have unlimited opportunity if they
open the doors of their mind and their spirit by getting
involved with good people.
GOODWIN: This discussion, of course, is based on the
exhibition "Western Living" at the county fair. What was
the specific message to people visiting that exhibition?
Was it "Go out and get some good advice when you design
your home"? Or was it "You can do this yourself with
SHEETS: Both, I think both. I think in addition to that,
it opened the eyes of many people, undoubtedly thousands
of people — not hundreds, but thousands of people — to see
what a perfectly beautiful bowl, a ceramic bowl, can mean
in the right place, in the scale of the room, and the
excitement, the identity, the character, the personality
that enters a room with that versus something that you buy
in an ordinary, rinkydink shop. A piece of sculpture hung
on the wall, a painting, or a special tapestry, people were
so tremendously responsive to this thing, I can't tell you.
And I know we had a tremendous influence upon people's
buying. Now, I don't know how many of them would have gone
through the process of saying, "You design this for me,"
although I've known hundreds of experiences like that, too,
not only through ray own experience but through people coming
to me, asking, "Who can I get to do something?" I've had
the most fun in my life saying, "I know exactly the person
you should ask," then calling that person and saying, "Now,
approach this properly and it's going to be an exciting
experience." And it works.
GOODWIN: You seem to be implying that almost anybody is
capable of developing good taste. Is that true?
SHEETS: I think so. I think that good taste is based
upon as much discipline as is required in mathematics or
in the knowledge of chemistry. I think that a person can,
by exposure and by thoughtful study, serious study, can
enlarge his taste enormously. I can't say that everyone
is going to be equal. I wouldn't suggest that. I think
some people are infinitely more sensitive; they're deeper
in their love of life; they have a great deal more percep-
tive power than others. But I've hardly known a person
that you couldn't, if he was interested in learning, be
of tremendous help in developing his taste.
TAPE NUMBER: VI, SIDE TWO
DECEMBER 13, 1976
GOODWIN: As an art educator, I'm sympathetic to your point
of view, but in a way I also feel that it's wishful thinking,
that it's too much to expect, that most people have the
potential of becoming quite sensitive to their environment
SHEETS: I understand why you say that, and I think you have
a good position. I can't say that what I'm talking about is
easy to achieve. I think it's difficult to do it en masse.
I think it's difficult to do it at the scale and education
that is so often demanded from a teacher. But if you have
the chance to be with people and have an opportunity to
expose them to fine things, expect them to do a reasonable
amount--and perhaps I will suggest an unreasonable amount
of research and reading and continuous looking--people do
begin to develop comparative judgment. And this whole
thing I'm talking about is a comparative judgment proposi-
tion. I think perhaps the thing that expresses it the best
would be to discuss innumerable collectors that I have known
in my lifetime — and I've lived long enough to see them
develop, over a period of thirty years, forty years, from
the most banal, ordinary kind of taste to exceptional taste.
Now, I think one of the things that sharpens a collector
more quickly than anything else is their investment. There's
an old saying that there are lots of people who love art,
but it's Platonic till you buy it. And I thoroughly agree
with this, because as a collector I don't think in terms
of owning art; I think in terms of being surrounded with
things that talk to me and that I get so much out of. I've
known collector after collector who started out buying the
obvious, the picture, the sweet thing, the thing that
requires the least thinking. But as they are reviewed by
their contemporaries, and as they look around more and
become more conscious, some of them very quickly realize
that many times those are bad investments. So they begin
to look more deeply into it.
Now, I think that anytime you can be, as I have on so
many occasions, practically living with people, twenty or
thirty people for two solid weeks, talking day after day —
what seems to be almost like talking to a blank wall or a
solid rock wall—along about the middle or certainly the
latter third of that time, you are amazed at the impact
that you can have in that length of time. In the breakdown
of fear, for example. I taught last summer a very intensive
course up at Asilomar in a workshop for Jade Fong. There
were 130 people, and there were four teachers. We worked
literally day and night. We started at seven-thirty in
the morning with breakfast and ended up at eleven o'clock
with criticisms in a small theater. And I'm getting letters
now, at this time— perhaps it has to do with Christmas, and
I've had them all of the fall, all during the fall—letters
literally by the dozen. I must have had at least thirty
letters from people who show gratitude for having had the
fear of so many things broken down. Now, one thing I didn't
think about was talking about being fearful. But in getting
people really excited and stirred up and involved with their
thinking and their reasoning and their judgment and the way
we looked at the things together, I tell you, it's a fantastic
thing that you can do. One of the worst problems is that in
ordinary teaching you meet them once or twice or three times
a week in a darkened room with a bunch of slides, or you
talk to them, and they're half -asleep. But if you get into
the situation where they can be truly exposed and you expect
a great deal from them, it's amazing what can happen. I
know it isn't easy, and I know that I'm sounding oversimplified.
GOODWIN: Well, I think one of the basic reasons that the
problem is so acute is that art isn't taken seriously in
school. Kids don't study art through the grades, and if
they do study art it's usually in a rather superficial way.
SHEETS: Well, absolutely, you couldn't be more right.
Another way of saying it is that sometimes they're exposed
to a lot of art without ever having really been given some
sense of why that art exists or the function of it or the
place of it in society. To merely talk about names and
dates, as I was told in high school to remember some names
and dates after looking at slides, doesn't really get you
very far. But when you begin to get involved with the
quality of mind that a piece of stone can imprison, and
you begin to feel it and see it, then you never look at
another piece of sculpture the same way — whether it's a
painting, whether it's a drawing, whatever it is. I think
you're absolutely right. I think the superficiality of
teaching teachers to teach by the gross, or worse than
that .... As I told you, I think, my Latin teacher
became my art teacher.
SHEETS: This is a poor, poor substitute for cultural depth.
GOODWIN: Well, I know the situation today in the Los Angeles
city schools is that a student does not have to take any art
in order to graduate from high school. So theoretically,
after a kid graduates from elementary school, he may not
have any art the rest of his life.
SHEETS: This is true. And he may feel that it's only for
ladies and people who don't have anything else to do. It's
a very sad thing. Yet it's interesting to me now, working
with business people, working with people who are older, who
I'm sure went through much the same struggle— and I'm cer-
tainly not talking about the masses, but I'm talking about
people who have developed themselves as human beings, who've
traveled, who've built homes and built businesses — it's
extraordinary how hungry I find these people to know what
the arts will do for their lives. The only word I can use
is hunger, because it's something that they crave, and they
need help even in their adult stages of life to un-self-
consciously approach these arts.
I think I told you before, one of the most exciting
things in my experience in working with bankers and indust-
rialists and so on is that many of them become very important
art collectors, not because I tried to make collectors out
of them, but I got them excited because I'm excited about
these things. They take care of themselves from then on.
They have to be introduced, and when they're introduced,
they know that nobody's trying to make some kind of myster-
ious magic out of this thing, that it's a down-to-earth thing
that man has always craved and needed. The only reason the
arts continue in life is because they're part of the languages;
otherwise you have no means to communicate these elements of
GOODWIN: There's another county fair exhibition I want to
mention, and that was 1953, "Painting in the United States."
SHEETS: Well, I think that was the one that I mentioned
where we had the juries in the East and the Middle West.
GOODWIN : Oh .
SHEETS: Yes, that's the same exhibition.
GOODWIN: This was 150 paintings, essentially tracing the
history of American art; and then toward the end there was
an overview of contemporary painting.
SHEETS: Oh, that's right. I'd forgotten that I had
invited some of the great early things. That's right. I'd
forgotten that part of it. In addition to the juries that
we had of contemporary things, we did have some great earlier
things, that's right. I'd forgotten that.
GOODWIN: I was kind of surprised that in 1953, at the Los
Angeles County Fair, you were showing Gottlieb, Motherwell,
Reinhardt, Hofmann, Baziotes.
GOODWIN: That seems pretty far out.
SHEETS: Well, even though I'm a representational painter,
and I suppose those people would call me ultra-, ultra-,
rancid conservative, which I've never thought I was, I have
never felt that way about other kinds of art. I'm interested
in all kinds of art. I had the pleasure of selecting what I
thought were some of their best works for that show. It was
an exciting show to me. I've always done that. In any of
the exhibitions at [Scripps] College or the county fair or
later at Otis, we saw no lines of demarcation. I fought
for the right of people to do, you know, whatever type of
art they wanted to do.
GOODWIN: Was there any rivalry between these big exhibitions
at the county fair and the operation of the Los Angeles
SHEETS: No, unfortunately they stopped the local exhibition
when we became really involved with it. During the Depression,
there were budgetary problems. You see, Los Angeles County
Museum had a series of directors who were not interested in
art. They had, oh, for a long period of time someone in one
of the sciences [William A. Bryan]. I've forgotten now
which one— I think it was geology. And later they did have
a very good man, the head of the art department, who later
was involved with the Metropolitan Museum, [Roland] McKinney.
He made things lively for a while, but he couldn't persuade
the board, which at that time was largely interested in the
science and history side of the old museum, to give them
the budget for even the annual show. Then the next director
was Dr. [Jean] Delacour, who was primarily interested in
animals and zoos. He was a fascinating man. I became a
very close friend of his because I loved birds, and that
was his great joy. He's written some of the greatest books
on birds. It was at the time that I went to become the
director at the Otis Art Institute that we became such close
friends, when we met as department heads. But we met on the
bird-life side rather than on the art side. Then, of course,
when the new museum was built and Ric Brown became the art
director, he was interested in only the things he was
interested in. He had no interest in the local artists
whatsoever, except a few, a very small number that he
happened to like. I'm sure you've had this from Jimmy
Byrnes as well as or better than I can tell you. But
there was a very vast gap between the approach of the
curators at that time and anything like a local exhibition.
So there really never was any competition.
GOODWIN: It sounds that in some sense you were doing the
museum's work for the museum.
SHEETS: Well, we filled a very important need — there's no
doubt about it. We worked closely with some of the smaller
museums, like Santa Barbara and San Diego. I used to spend
a tremendous amount of time working in San Diego and Santa
Barbara, lecturing and jurying and persuading the artists
in those regions to become involved in the county fair. It
was great because we pulled the state together pretty well
during those days. Even from the north — we had a tremendous
number of things that came from the San Francisco area. But
the museum, which I think should have been doing that, was
just not interested.
GOODWIN: So, for a certain time of the year, the best
place to see quality art was at the county fair.
SHEETS: For a big exhibition of a cross section it certainly
was. There were of course a few galleries in town that were
showing excellent things, but for a good cross section of
what was going on, I think it was a very satisfactory thing.
GOODWIN: Did you know Dr. [William R.] Valentiner at the
SHEETS: Yes. He was an amazing man. He, of course, came
with a great background and reputation from Detroit. I was
always disappointed that he didn't get more local support
than he did. I can't remember — did he die on the job or
did he die right after he left?
GOODWIN: He left Los Angeles. Of course by the time he
came here, he had retired from Detroit, but he retired
again and then he went to help organize the North Carolina
museum in Raleigh, and he died in Raleigh.
SHEETS: That's right. But he was probably a little ahead
of the group that really got behind the new museum. If it
had been a little later, I think Valentiner would have been
very successful here. But it was hard, after having had
the support of great wealth in Detroit, to conjure up much
of that here. I remember it was a discouraging thing for
him, and it was discouraging for me because it seemed like
the L.A. museum just wasn't going to come out of the dol-
drums. And then it did very suddenly, indirectly from me.
It started with Howard Ahmanson.
GOODWIN: We're going to talk about that later. Did you
have any contact with the old Pasadena museum?
SHEETS: Yes, many kinds of contacts. I knew the early
directors. Grace Nicholson gave it to the city of
Pasadena as the Pasadena museum, and of course I was a
very close friend of Grace Nicholson. I had bought some
beautiful Oriental things, Japanese mainly, from her and
had been so accustomed to the gallery. The board that was
formed in the city included Jarvis Barlow and his mother,
who were wealthy and devoted patrons of the arts. I knew
Virginia Scott for many years, whose museum I am very
involved with since her death. [doorbell rings; tape
recorder turned off] Mr. [Albert B.] Ruddock, as I remember,
was the chairman of the board, and they had birth pains,
which most institutions have. I was called in on several
instances to discuss problems with them in the more abstract
sense, in handling exhibitions and that kind of thing. Then
Mrs. Scott asked the directors and was granted the privilege
of putting on, if I remember, three major shows a year of
individual artists — in some cases retrospective, in some
cases their current work. I was very happy to be asked to
have a retrospective show, which I did. In every way in
the early days , I was involved in and out without any assign-
ment or certainly no appointment of any kind. But we exchanged
quite a few exhibits between Scripps and Pasadena, our ceramic
show particularly. We used to send some special things that
they invited out of that show afterwards. And we had print
shows that we shared jointly.
GOODWIN: But it wasn't a museum of modern art at that
SHEETS: It included modern things, but it was not a modern-
art museum. It had Oriental material because of Grace
Nicholson's background. She loaned some very important
things to them, and they borrowed some very important
things. Rather tragically, they built up quite a large
museum collection, and when the new group came in and
suddenly switched and made it into a modern museum--which.
as you know, ended up in bankruptcy-they sold and virtually
gave away the majority of the museum's collection. Now, out
of that were some very important things that were sold at
very nominal prices to get rid of them because they didn't
suit the particular taste of the new princes of the modern
museum. I think this is one reason that makes me very
skeptical about giving things to a museum.
I'm in this problem right now, where I would have
loved to have had the faith in giving maybe Scripps or
some museum certain things in our collection. The thing
that perturbs me is, all a museum has to do is to change
curators, and you take what was in the basement and bring
it to the top, and you take what's in the museum and put
it in the basement. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but I
think that it's discouraging for people to give in great
sincerity a collection to an institution and then have it
misused. I think a tough board of acceptance should always
be set up for a museum because they're obviously offered
more gifts, whether for tax purposes or for pure love,
than they should accept automatically. I think that a
very intelligent, extremely wise, well-trained committee
should have power to accept or reject. But once you
accept, it's bad faith in my opinion to suddenly get rid
of these things, whether by sale or by putting them in a
permanent icebox in the basement.
I was shocked, as I'm sure you may be, by the fact
that the Brooklyn Museum is just selling some tremendously
important material. In their case, it ' s a matter of
survival, however, for operating expense. Yet they turn
around and pay $1,800,000 for a [Albert] Bierstadt. I
don't know where the "survival" quite fits into this.
They sold eleven major works in order, I heard, to "survive,"
and then the first thing I know they're buying a painting
that is hard to believe is worth $1,800,000. But in any
case, that's the way museums go.
I think it was tragic for the Pasadena museum, which
had quite a bit of good material of some of the earlier
California artists and sculptors — maybe they weren't great,
but they're part of the heritage of this area. There would
have been many ways they could have been used, put on loan,
occasionally shown, without dismissing them as though they
were just unimportant material. The same thing has
happened at the L.A. museum on several occasions.
GOODWIN: Have you had any contact over the years with the
SHEETS: Yes, I've had a reasonable amount of contact with
the Huntington. It was a great shock to me to discover
that in Henry Huntington's will, he insisted that there
should at one day become an American gallery of absolutely
top quality to balance the English eighteenth-century
GOODWIN: You're kidding!
SHEETS: I'm not kidding. The various boards, since
Huntington's death in the early 1900s, have been largely
involved with the scholarly side of the Huntington Library.
Though they were given at the time what seemed like a very
enormous endowment of better than $30 million, they have
used the income from the $30 million to enhance and develop
and widen the scope of the library. They have also purchased
in the neighborhood of some 600 to 800 British drawings,
prints, etchings— graphics. They have bought a few paintings,
English eighteenth-century. Though it's somewhat off the
record at the moment, I'm sure that within the next two
years there will be an important, very important gallery
of European eighteenth-century paintings given to the
Huntington Museum, which will be an interesting balance
to the collection of strictly British eighteenth-century
paintings that occupy the galleries. Their hope is to have
an American gallery, and they're definitely headed in that
direction, but it's going to mean a great deal of outside
assistance and an enlargement of their endowment fund in
order to accomplish it. But it's part of their plan.
GOODWIN: It seems that traditionally the Huntington has
been kind of an island unto itself. It hasn't sought any
SHEETS: That's right. Well, one of their problems is that
in the will it is stated that they cannot loan paintings.
Now, if you're stuck with a situation that you cannot loan
a painting, it's very difficult to borrow paintings, even
if you're an established, very important institution, as
certainly the Huntington Library has become, worldwide.
It has one of the great research libraries — not only in
English literature, but in American history and literature
and many other fields in American life. It's a vast opera-
tion. In fact, I think I was told recently by the director.
Dr. [James] Thorpe, that there are 1,140 scholars there
working continuously today in the library. Now that's
something you don't see as you enter the premises, but
they're there, and it's great for this area to have such
GOODWIN: While we're surveying some of the art institutions
of Southern California, we should mention the short-lived
Modern Institute of Art in Beverly Hills. Do you remember
SHEETS: I remember it, but I had nothing to do with it~
and my feeling about it is not even developed. I don't
know, and I certainly couldn't be informative—because I
know the people that were back of it and I know that there
was such a zeal for it— but I never did know why it couldn't
get off the ground, and it certainly didn't. So I'm in
complete ignorance of that.
GOODWIN: Let's return to the county fair. What was the
situation in the middle fifties, shortly before you left?
SHEETS: Well, everything was really moving along
beautifully, except there were two or three elements that
were disconcerting. One was that the artists — I can't say
the average artist, but a great many artists, let's put it
that way — a great many artists in Southern California were
very unhappy about the fact that we did not have our annual
juried local exhibition. I appreciated and understood this
feeling, but I also felt that what we were trying to do was
a better educational job with the public than just a juried
show. I felt that many of the artists could have gained
more from the exhibition by becoming involved with what we
were trying to do and becoming stimulated by the thing, but
a lot of the people who complained the most never came to
the exhibitions, which often happens. So you had that side
of discontent. It was not enormous, but some very strange
letters were written by some very interesting people, many
of whom were good friends of mine. They felt extremely
selfish about the problem and felt that they were being
kept out of something. That was one side.
On the other side was the fact that gradually, without
trying to make a big thing out of it, our annual budgets
were climbing up substantially, and that was partly due to
inflation. It was also partly due to the fact that we were
trying to do a bigger and better job. No one likes to just
repeat anything, and I had a good staff, most of whom were
working on a menial basis — I mean not even anything like
the kind of labor prices that carpenters or plumbers were
were getting at the time, but they were assisting me in
unpacking, packing, hanging, taking down, janitor work,
all the things that we did. And we all did the janitor
work, believe me. Being the head man, I was the head
janitor. I hammered almost every basic nail to hang those
exhibits. It was not a matter of asking somebody to do it;
I did it with the help of marvelous young people, mostly
college people. I never told you what I got as the highest
salary, which was, I think, for a year's work. Because the
minute one show was over and everything was back safely and
the letters were written and thank -yous and whatnot, I
immediately started, sometimes even before the show was
down, working on ideas for the next show, and then the
whole year was occupied. I think the largest salary I
ever received was $2,500 for a year's work. So I hardly
did it for money. But nevertheless, the budget went up:
the shipping, the insurance, the costs of building those
rooms. That was, I guess, a kind of fatal mistake on my
The board came to me through the director of the fair,
who was a man I'd grown up with. He was, of course, very
much older, but we'd always been very good friends, and
he'd always supported me. But he called me up one day,
and I had planned a marvelous South American, Central
American show. I wanted a Western Hemisphere show, with-
out the United States, up to and including Mexico, Central
America, and South America. I had made all of the steps
during the year before to arrange for this and had some of
the greatest artists in sculpture and painting and tapestry
and everything else involved. And it would have made a
fantastic show. The budget would have been about half of
what our budget for our big exhibition for House Beautiful
was. But anyway, before, they had always allowed me to come
and see them at the winter board meeting.
I think it was in December or November I was called by
the head of the fair, and he said, "Millard, I think you
ought to have a sabbatical for a year. You've been talking
about how difficult it is to do this with all of your other
work. We'd like to have you take a year off." I said,
"I'd be delighted to do that, but what are you going to
do while I'm gone?" Well, he said, "We'd like to put on
a great photographic exhibition." [phone rings; tape
recorder turned off]
I said, "I think it would be fabulous to put on a
great exhibition, and I know two or three people who you
could get to direct it. I'd be delighted to have a year
off. If you start out with the great, earliest prints,
which were made in France, and make it an historical
thing, and then on the other hand take, for instance,
the view of what the impact of photography is upon modern
man in all of its vehicles of communication and every
other aspect as well as being a highly creative instrument,
I think it would make a great exhibition." "Well," he
said, "Millard, we're not interested in that. We want to
do a snapshot contest of families sending in pictures of
their animals and their babies and so forth and so forth."
I said, "Well, Jack" — his name was Jack Afflerbaugh, and
we were very good friends up to that time — I said, "Jack,
I couldn't possibly swallow that in our art exhibition.
If you want to do that under the grandstand, there's
tremendous space up there. It's the kind of space where
most of the people will congregate anyway. That would be
fine." But I said, "If you put that in the art building,
in our exhibition hall, where we've stood for something,
where we've set some values and stood for quality, I would
simply have to resign." I said, "This isn't a threat, this
is simply the way I feel about it. I couldn't abide by it."
"Well," he said, "I'm sorry you feel that way about it." I
said, "Well, that is the way I feel about it, and if you go
ahead with this thing, then just automatically accept my
resignation, because I will not come back if you put on
such an exhibition."
For years after that. Jack and I argued whether I quit
or he fired me, and I've always said he really fired me
because he accepted my choice without any question. In any
case, I was relieved because I had been giving a fantastic
amount of time, and I'm sure I would have gone on indefinitely
to continue the thing. I knew there was no way I could put
on the kind of show I'd been putting on after a silly family
GOODWIN: What happened to the art program at the fair after
SHEETS: They had that exhibition, which I must say I didn't
see, and then, very wisely, they hired Rick Petterson, who
had been my assistant in charge of all the craft end of it
as the director of the art department. But they put a man
over him who also is a very good friend of mine, a sculptor
who had been working for a long time in what they called
their "home" exhibit. The builders had a very large area
where they built houses, model houses, and decorated and so
forth. Johnny Svenson was the head of that department. I
guess they thought that he was a man that could stay within
the budgets more easily than the rest of us could, so they
hired him to, in a sense, supervise, although he didn't in
any way supervise what Rick did. Rick has done a very good
job. He's made the exhibitions very exciting to the public.
There's been a lot of art in action: a tremendous number
of potters working, silversmiths, glass blowers — sometimes
from Mexico, sometimes from Europe, sometimes from here.
Though I have not actually seen an art exhibit since, I've
heard very good things about certain aspects of the exhibi-
tions. Rick is a very talented, very able person, and
they've had some crafts exhibited in relation to these art-
in-action things. It's been largely local, except for a
few cases, as I said, when they went out to Mexico or to
Europe to get some special craftsman. They did have some
Japanese potters come over one time. I think it's been
creditable, from what I understand. I haven't seen one.
GOODWIN: Of course, the rest of the art scene in Southern
California has changed much more dramatically.
SHEETS: That's true.
GOODWIN: It's possible to say that the fair plays less
of an important role now than it did previously.
SHEETS: That's right. I think they do get a huge attend-
ance, but I don't think anything like we did. They get no
real national publicity, or they don't have the impact of
getting top artists out and that kind of thing, but still
they've done a good job.
GOODWIN: There's one development I failed to mention when
we began to discuss the Pasadena museum, although it might
have been slightly premature. That is the development of
the series of exhibitions called "California Design." It
seems that in a sense that series might represent an out-
growth of your House Beautiful exhibition.
SHEETS: Well, I think that that's true, and I think that
the very fine woman that runs that, Mrs. [Eudorah] Moore,
has always said that to me. Being very old friends to
begin with, she has always said that what we did at the
fair and what we did at Scripps was the same kind of
exhibition, but on a smaller scale. It was the basis
on which she built her whole concept. I know that her
spirit is very deep about the craftsmen and the feeling
that they have, and she is most enthusiastic. She used
to be a juror very often in the early days at the county
fair, and she attended most of the art exhibits at Scripps.
So I do think there was a nice relationship. Of course what
she did in the old building, the Grace Nicholson building,
some of those exhibitions were absolutely superb. I have
a little feeling as time has gone on that the juries look
for more and more experiment and less and less feeling of
relating the things that are done to the needs of the com-
munity. Not that there isn't always an opportunity and a
need for something that is as esoteric as some of these
things are, but I think it's gotten a little bit out of
relationship. That's my feeling from seeing the last two
shows. But I think it's good, it's experimental, and it
certainly is stimulating. You might not like it, but it
certainly is good for you to see how many ways people can
use materials, and it's good. Some of the great craftsmen
in our area, people like Sam Maloof and others, have been,
in the past shows, very important.
I don't know if Sam was in the last show or not. He,
by the way, worked for me for four years as my assistant
before he became a furniture designer. He married one of
my top graduate students, and I was his best man, which
was an honor that I loved. We're still very, very close
friends, but I'll never forget the day about a week after
they were married and they came back from their honeymoon.
He said, "Millard, I want to design and make furniture. I
want to do it full time." I said, "Well, Sam, I think that's
marvelous. When do you want to do it?" He said, "Now." I
said, "Well, what can I do to help you?" He said, "I've got
a little shop that I've been building and I have enough money.
As you know, I've spent hardly anything since I started working
for you." He was a very thrifty, very clever guy. From the
first day that man started making furniture, he was success-
ful— not only in desing , but this is again what I go back
to: if you have the absolute love and desire to do some-
thing for people, it's contagious. I don't know any human
being, really, that is as contagious as Sam Maloof. Sam has
friends in every part of the world. He's been sent all over
the world by the State Department and other departments in
the government to teach. He's been to the country that his
family came from, Lebanon. He's been to Greece. He's been
in Turkey. He's been all over the world as well as all
over the United States, and I think he's been to the Orient
(I'm not sure about that). He's on every major committee,
including the [National] Endowment for the Arts in Washington.
He's one of the most involved fellows I know who still
primarily makes every piece of his furniture. He has one
or two assistants, at the most, who do sanding and oiling
and that kind of thing, but Sam does everything else. He's
exuberant beyond belief. He's an avid collector of beautiful
things, and he's become so articulate. In the early days
Sam was afraid of his own voice. Now he lectures with ease,
and he's so successful because he only talks about what he
knows. There's no pretense. There's no affectation. It's
from the gut. A great guy.
GOODWIN: We just have a couple of minutes left, and I
don't want to get into Otis at this point, but you served
as a juror throughout your career at exhibitions outside
of the county fair.
SHEETS: Yes. I think that's been probably one of the most
important things to happen to an artist. I was so fortunate,
I think I told you, getting into the Carnegie International
[Exhibition in Pittsburgh] as I did in the last juried show,
which helped me to become known more rapidly than many of my
contemporaries here. The result is that when they thought
of balancing a jury in the East with someone from the West,
I was invited over and over again, which meant that I met
marvelous artists, some of the finest in the United States.
I could just name you a list that you wouldn't believe of
the top painters, in every facet of art, not one school.
The experience of going to learn and to see and to exper-
ience the variety of things that were presented, and then
to look for quality regardless of style, taught me at least
to be quite catholic in my taste and very excited about
things that other people did that I wished to hell I could
say I'd done.
GOODWIN: What are just a few of the places where you've
been a juror?
SHEETS: Oh, my goodness, Philadelphia, Carnegie, New York.
GOODWIN: The Metropolitan?
SHEETS: Yes, the Metropolitan was that great exhibition of
"Artists for Victory." I think I told you it lasted nine
days. Did I tell you an experience that happened in that
GOODWIN: I don't think so.
SHEETS: About the second or third day, Francis Taylor, who
was the director of the Metropolitan Museum, invited a mar-
velous jury, people like Eugene Speicher and Franklin
Watkins, and a whole group of really good painters, repre-
senting quite a variety of artists, from semiabstract
painters to expressionistic painters, and one or two in my
general category. I can't remember all their names, but
there were nine of us on the jury: Aaron Bohrod, Niles
Spencer, [Charles] Burchfield, Leon Kroll were among the
group. After the second day, as we went across the street
to a lovely restaurant for lunch, Francis Taylor said,
"Millard, I'm worried because these huge pictures that
come in, many are mostly blank with a few streaks of nice
color, and they overpower a painting that may be a very
beautiful small painting of a head or a very subtle land-
scape. They look like something that happened a long time
ago, and they look unimportant alongside these tremendously
big abstract or semiabstract things." He said, "I think
the jury is overpowered by these things, and maybe many
artists are not getting a fair shake." I said, "Well, I
feel that way, too." I said, "What do you have in the
basement that people don't know about that's important —
maybe a great postimpressionistic picture or something that
hasn't been shown. If you have something, we'll run it
through for fun, to shake everybody up." To cut a long
story short, we went down in the basement, after we hurried
back from lunch, and found a magnificent little van Gogh,
about thirty inches long and about twenty inches high. It
was a little on the grey side, but an exquisite painting
of fields in Holland and Belgium with some birds. It looked
like the perfect example. And I said, "Let's run it through."
Well, of course, I knew it was coming, and I said, "Bring
it in about two-thirty." There was this long line of men
bringing pictures in one after another, and finally I could
see it coming. We voted by pressing buttons on a machine
that we borrowed from the National Academy. When the
picture finally came up on the easel, I remember Eugene
Speicher was the chairman of the jury, and he said, "All
right, gentlemen, your votes." I pressed my button, and
only my vote registered. The picture was carried away and
I let it go until the man carrying it had gone about thirty
feet. I said, "Gene, could we look at that last painting
again?" When the picture was replaced on the easel. Gene
Speicher crawled up to the easel and said, "Damn you,
Millard, it's a van Gogh." Everyone was shaken by the
experience, and I can assure you the jury moved forward
with great concern.
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